Matroyshka – Part 1

This is a short story I stumbled across many, many years ago. With the original writers permission, I have re-produced it here. Please note: this is not official lore, but one person’s take. I will be posting it up in a series of parts. Enjoy

“I’m here to shoot someone,” the man answered.

Siffering’s next question froze on his lips as his drink-soaked mind processed that last and unexpected response. He frantically hunted through his memory for anything bad he had done, and then quickly shifted to anything bad he had done that other people knew about, in order to narrow the field.

“What? What? Who?”

The oddly-uniformed man still didn’t look at him, his eyes hunting here and there amongst the press of troopers. He spoke in an almost off-hand fashion, as if enjoying a private joke. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him. Please excuse me, trooper.”

Siffering breathed a sigh of relief that was almost pure resac fumes as he watched the dark-skinned, tidy little man walk away through the boisterous crowd.

“Nearly sobered me up there, you little – ah! Maliutin, you jug-eared piece of piss! Have a drink you son-of-a – you have one already! Good man! Salut!”

At the far end of the bar, the oddly-uniformed man smiled down at a bald-headed, pale-faced woman, who was staring at a broad-shouldered trooper sitting across the table from her. Both the woman and the trooper had shot-glasses in their hands, full to the brim.

“Hello, Shiny,” said the man, his sardonic tone making it clear that this was not a sociable greeting.

The woman looked up, briefly flashed a sarcastic smile, and then turned back to the trooper. “Hello, Blunt.”

“I thought I’d find you here. Although I thought you would be lying either on or under the table by this point.”

“I imagine the note that said ‘I have gone for a drink’ cut down on the thinking time a little, but well done, anyway.”

The trooper scowled, his drink still held in front of him. “Are you two love-birds going to talk or are we going to drink?”

The woman just stared at him. Eventually, the man she had called Blunt said “I’ll be over here, then,” and strode over to a free stool, where he sat, looking around the packed bar-tent with obvious disinterest.

Money changed hands among the trooper’s friends and other onlookers, and the woman and the trooper downed their drinks in one go. They then grabbed their lasrifles from the floor, slammed them down on the table between them and began stripping the mechanism, fingers flying as they both slurred the Litanies of Maintenance.

The woman fumbled the firing actuator, and a snort of derision went up from the surrounding men. She eventually got the charging coil out, tapped it fleetingly on the desk and began re-assembly, but the trooper was now a step or two ahead of her.

A few seconds later he gave a howl of victory, pointed the re-built lasrifle at the smoke-stained ceiling and pulled the trigger. The racking mechanism popped out with a hiss and an unpleasant burning smell, and fell onto the drink-sodden tabletop.

The woman raised her rifle, grinning in self-satisfaction, and put a fresh scorch-mark on the flakboard ceiling. The shot didn’t attract any attention in the packed bar-tent.

She slammed the rifle down onto the table with a whoop of drunken delight, and stood up, her chair falling over behind her.

“And she wins again!” She crowed into the trooper’s alcohol-reddened face. “They said it couldn’t be done, and now the crowd are calling for a victory lap of honour!”

She went round the crowd taking fistfuls of currency from each of them, which they mostly gave up without too much of a struggle. Mutterings of discontent and mumbled accusations of cheating simply made her smirk all the more.

She turned back to the trooper at the small table, her winnings disappearing into her uniform pockets.

“Better luck next time, Kovus. Maybe you’ll be up against someone you can beat, like a girl. Oh, wait –“ and she laughed again.

The man she had called Blunt sighed, and slipped down off his stool. He had seen how nights like this usually ended. He sorted his uniform cuffs and smoothed his lapels, waiting for the fighting to start.

Kovus stood up with a grating sound as his chair slid back over the rough, studded floor. He towered over the woman, who was now smiling up at him, batting her lashless eyelids mockingly, her head tilted to one side. He paused.

“Well done, ma’am. Think I’ll call it a night, lads,” he said to his friends and pushed off through the crowd around the bar.

The woman seemed slightly disappointed as she watched his retreating back, a faint look of surprise on her face.

“I wouldn’t have hurt him. Much. What’s with these new guys? Just a bit of fun on Revelry Night.”

The man she called Blunt walked over to stand beside her. “I think you hurt his feelings, Vhuna. I doubt you could have hurt anything else. Almost impossible as it is to conceive, I think he was attracted to you.”

“Hurt his feelings? These grunts don’t have feelings, Blunt. They just have my money.” She turned around, her expression hardening and her silver eyes darkening to a stormy grey. “What do you mean, impossible to conceive? That’s a low blow, even from you.”

“Not what I meant, I assure you. Poor choice of words.”

She grunted, and started pulling notes out of her pockets, counting her winnings. “Apology accepted.”

“It wasn’t an apology.”

“No, I didn’t think so. Time to go, eh?”

“You know the Colonel doesn’t like it when you – wander off like this. Most of the men get jumpy around you.”

She stopped counting the money long enough to tap her wrists together sharply right in front of the man’s face, the two intricate metal bracelets clinking twice as she did so. The sound was surprisingly heavy and muted.

The man rocked his head back a fraction, a look of annoyance showing on his face. “Doesn’t make any difference, you know that. Come on.”

“One last drink, Blunty? Celebrate my winnings? Tomorrow we may all die?”

You will, probably.”

She whirled on him, her pale, sweating face a sudden mask of rage. “Feck you, Blunt! Just feck you!”

She headed for the door, unsteadily elbowing and pushing her way through the crowd as best she could, spilling drinks whenever she got the chance. Shouts and curses rained off her retreating back.

Cadet Commissar Koju smiled to himself, wiped the flecks of the psyker woman’s spittle from his face, smoothed his lapels and followed her back to the billet.

“My, aren’t you a glorious sight in the morning, Shiny. With the lights off you look almost human,” Koju said as he strode into the small dorm. He took his cap off, peered into the reflector-strip over the wash-stand and ran a hand through his close-cropped blond hair. It shone like a beacon above his jet-black face.

Vhuna said nothing as she swung her legs over the edge of the bunk, rubbing her wrists where the dampener-bracelets had chafed during the night. She hadn’t even heard him unlock the door. Her head was groggy from the evening before, and her wits were slow.

She really, really needed a drink of water. Koju probably knew this, which was why he was preening around in front of the wash-stand. She wasn’t about to give him the pleasure he would wring from a request that he move aside.

Koju eventually turned around, fitting his peaked cap with its white band back on his head.

“Colonel wants to see you. Now.”

Vhuna swore, and sighed heavily. “All right. Give me a minute.”

Koju grinned like the soul of generosity itself. “I’ll give you two.”

He swept of out the cramped dorm, his coat cracking with a practised flick. He whipped the canvas drapes over the window to one side as he passed. The light burrowed painfully into Vhuna’s skull, and she winced, turning her head away as her gorge rose in protest.

This was going to be a long day.

“You scrub up well, Psyker Vhuna. If you weren’t wearing such a shapeless uniform I could almost bring myself to think of you as female.”

“And if you had a dick you’d almost be a man.”

Koju didn’t look at her as they walked. “Careful. There are lines, you know. Despite my good nature.”

Vhuna bit her tongue as numerous acid rejoinders clamoured to be said. No sense in making this day any worse, and Koju clearly had some special reason to be acting even more of an arsehole than usual.

They walked on in silence between the regular Guard barracks, their exhaled breath hanging behind them in the still and crisp mountain air. As usual the clarity of the air was working wonders on Vhuna’s hangover, and her thumping headache began to ease.

She looked up at the towering, snow-covered peaks surrounding the encampment, and flanking the pass higher up the glacial valley to the south. It was high summer on Coulter’s Haven, at least on this lofty bit of it, and glittering rilles along the scree-slopes to the west caught the early morning light as the sun crested the cols of the Arpentium to the east. Far above, wispy clouds soared and scudded in some distant stratospheric wind against a limitless, crystal blue sky. There was a lot more sky this morning, thought Vhuna, more sky and less mountains. Just an optical illusion, probably, but a pleasing one nonetheless.

A half-dozen troopers, out enjoying a few smokes after the morning mess, stopped talking as Vhuna and Koju passed. They were both used to such behaviour, although for completely different reasons.

“So. What’s it about?” Vhuna asked.

“As if they would tell me, Shiny.”

“Come on.”

“I am but a cog in the machine. One hand among millions. One –”

“– ego too many. Come on, Blunt. Spill it.”

He snorted, and then paused. “Someone wants to take a look at you.”

She waited for it.

“Poor fecker doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for.”

“Weak, Blunt. Weak and predictable. You’re slipping. Never make Commissar at this rate.”

He flashed her another of his sardonic smiles and kept on walking. They were nearly there.

After the Colonel’s adjutant had checked her bracelets outside the Command tent she and Koju were summoned inside.

The canvas tent was large and spacious, but crammed full of comms gear and dominated by a flat holodisplay and cogitator unit in the centre. Beside it stood Colonel Lehk, a handsome man with strong, almost aristocratic features and all the warmth and personal charm of the sociopath he undoubtedly was. Beside him stood Commissar Vodalus. He was an old man, with a face like the surface of an asteroid, and fire in his ample belly enough for a whole platoon. The air smelled of gutka smoke, wet dog and ozone.

The smoke was coming from the old Commissar, as usual. The wet dog smell – and the ozone – was coming from a hulking mass of furs and leathers slouched in a chair. The occupant’s face was turned away from Vhuna; all she could see was a shock of greasy, straggling hair spilling over his winter clothing, but she could see him clearly if she closed her eyes. He was a psyker.

The instant her inner gaze fell upon him he turned and sprang up out of the chair, which rebounded from the sudden departure of so much weight and spun to the duckboard floor. He loomed over the room like the shadow of a mountain, a bear of a man with wild, sparkling eyes and heavy features framed by all that hair. He moved, slowly and then quickly, circling around the room towards Vhuna and her guardian. He was growling, low and threatening. She felt Koju shift uncomfortably beside her. Some small, mammalian part of her brain quailed, and wanted to run up a tree, or hide under a log.

Then he was upon her, standing in front of her, moving behind her. He bent his massive head; she caught a waft of sour milk and wet leaves. He put his face close to her head, and she could have sworn he was smelling her. She began to shiver, suddenly feeling the cold and the altitude. He pressed closer, beside her now, his wet furs pushing into her. She wanted to draw away, and looked up at Colonel Lehk and the Commissar, but they were looking elsewhere. His breathing was rough and heavy, and she could feel the warmth on her neck.

Not only was he physically close and imposing, he was psychically overwhelming as well. Vhuna could feel – could see – the roiling depths of his mind, depths in which swam things she did not want to see. Endless, unlit depths. She shuddered.

He looked at her, and growled again, then looked at Colonel Lekh.

“How many?” His voice was like rocks breaking underwater.

“Six, my Lord,” Lekh replied quickly, looking as if he would like to add more for the sake of politeness, but could think of no way to embellish such little information. “Six,” he said again.

Vhuna’s blood ran cold. She prayed to the God Emperor that he didn’t ask to see them. Something told her Lekh and Vodalus would not – could not – refuse him, and she tried to steel herself to the ordeal.

The giant moved away from her as quickly as he had arrived, and began pacing around the room, his massive head turning this way and that as if searching for something. Vhuna tried to make herself as small as possible, tried to stop her heart from beating so loudly.

The man stopped. “Six. I see. You may proceed.”

With that he turned and left the Command Tent, and Vhuna did not need her psy-sense to know that everyone left in the room had just breathed a massive sigh of release.

“Well,” said the Colonel. “That was -” He coughed. “That was – Commissar. I think that’s all, think we’re done here. You can go.”

The Colonel turned smartly and, despite his words, it was he who walked out through the flap at the back of the tent to his personal apartments, leaving the old Commissar to stare openly at Vhuna. After what she had just been through, he could stare at her all day if he felt like it as far as she was concerned. No-one was about to put a gun to her head again, that was this morning’s good news.

The Commissar tapped the end of his pipe on the quiescent holodisplay table, still looking at Vhuna. Then he looked over at Koju.

“Anything happen last night I need to know about, Cadet Commissar?” His voice was quiet, unassuming. You would never think it to hear him on the battlefield.

“Nothing, Commissar Vodalus. Oh! The Psyker Vhuna and I paid a visit to the bar to get some air, however. A fleeting visit. Nothing of any consequence, I should have said.”

There was a pause, and Koju coughed.

“Will the Inquisitor be returning, Commissar Vodalus?”

If Vhuna had any blood left in her face, it drained out at that point.

Vodalus laughed, softly, and refilled his pipe.

“That wasn’t the Inquisitor, Cadet. I doubt he’s even in the sub-sector.” He laughed again. “Do you really think he would – that we would – heh! You’re young. I forget I was young once too.”

Koju bristled at this comment, but said nothing, and Vhuna could tell that he was embarrassed. He had been trying to impress her, unlikely as it seemed.

“That was one of his Interrogators. One of his field men. A bookish sort, I understand. Don’t think I ever caught his name. Don’t think I was meant to. Dismissed.”

Vhuna turned and followed Koju out of the tent.

Hope you enjoyed. Part 2 can be found here

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