Part 9 of Matroyshka. If you have made it this far, some parts should start to be making sense. Enjoy
“Here.” Vhuna’s gloved finger stabbed a location on the map of the Arpentium range. “The big ones are here, and here. Tell the mortar squads and Basilisks to aim there. We should be able to take plenty of them out before they decide to attack again.”
Koju relayed the co-ordinates to the Command Tent as Vhuna spoke.
“Also –“ Vhuna held out one hand. “Some airborne creatures approaching. From the north again. Can’t see them clearly yet. That’s all.”
She waited until Koju had finished talking into his bead and closed the connection. He looked at her enquiringly. “The west,” he said.
“Exactly. The more I see of it the more I think you’re right. It must be – them. Chaos.” She shuddered at the very thought. She wished she had some salt to sprinkle on her hands; ward off the forces of witchery. “It got me thinking. How did they get here?”
Koju shrugged. “A ship?”
“Of course a ship. But to slip past the flesh-ships and the Navy blockade they must have something warped. Some foul magic to hide their ship. So I looked. I’m not saying I found it, but I caught the same muddiness. Just a smudge across the whole upper atmosphere, but it’s there. It’s in orbit and I think whatever is hiding it is also making it hard to find the flesh-ships. Some kind of side-effect.”
Koju frowned. “I don’t know, Vhuna. Something we can’t see is the reason we can’t see something else. Sounds like solid female logic to me, certainly –“ He held up his hands as Vhuna’s face darkened and her eyes glowed. “Only kidding! Throne, no need to be so touchy. But you know what Colonel Lekh will say if I tell him that. He’d get so mad Vodalus would probably have to shoot him.”
“Then tell Vodalus.”
“I intend to.”
Koju was back on his vox-bead when a stormtrooper Lieutenant walked out onto the balcony, his bulky hellgun cradled in both arms. Vhuna saluted and Koju just turned away, still talking.
“Psyker. Tell the Cadet Commissar that the Sisters are ready to begin transporting the first of the minor relics. We’ve cleared the apex of the creatures, and spotters on the plateau say they can’t see any more climbing up. The Sisters want to leave immediately.”
Vhuna acknowledged and the Lieutenant left.
Koju turned back. “Vodalus is going to order the Navy to strike that location. Even they can’t miss the side of a mountain, but it will take an hour to put the Annihilator in the right orbit. If they move before then –“
“– I’ll let you know. You do know they’ll probably attack the minute we start moving these relics? Once they’re out in the open?”
“It had occurred to me. The Commissar will make sure Colonel Lekh doesn’t feck up. One way or the other.”
“Speaking of relics –“
“– it’s okay. I heard. Let’s go, I want to escort them down. Most of the stormtroopers are staying here. There’s still plenty of other relics that aren’t ready yet.”
Vhuna followed Koju off the balcony and back into the dark cloistered hall, heading for the single lift.
“Do you know what an entomosaur is?”
“No. Leave all that psyker jargon to you.”
“Oh,” said Koju as they walked. “The Boy says ‘hello.’”
“He worries me. I like Fendahl, the old guy’s good company – no offence, but I wish I was stuck with him instead of you – but that Boy gives me the willies. At least you don’t float, Shiny. You have that in your favour. And don’t start, either. One’s bad enough.”
Vhuna said nothing, and just squeezed the aquila in her pocket tightly.
The heavy incense from the holy censers caught in Vhuna’s nose and throat, although it dispelled for a welcome moment the sting in the air caused by the xeno corruption. The open-sided cargo lift suspended over the invisible drop to the plateau surface was almost full. In the absence of the revered Sisters of Battle, their ancient vessel forced far off course by the xeno shadow in the empyrean, the devotional Sisters of the Order had taken up arms to escort the first of their relics to the transport vessel half a mile away and hundreds of metres below. They may have lacked the armour, the cleansing flame weapons and the heavy equipment of their more martial Sisters, but in utter devotion, piety and zeal none could claim to be their better. Few indeed were their equal.
Vhuna winced to see the fresh blood-stains seeping through the robes of all of them. Sharpened steel chains had purified their mute flesh time and again before this most sombre undertaking could proceed.
Two stormtroopers stood at the outside corners of the rectangular lift, their hellguns tracking across the obsidian night. At the centre was the reliquary itself, cased now for transportation. Even the man-sized case was ornately decorated with wrought silver angels and hammered bronze panels, each pierced with a Governor’s wealth in gemstones depicting holy crusades and sacred sacrifices. Quite what lay inside such ostentatious wrappings Vhuna could only wonder at.
She noticed the Grand Schema towering over the assembly at the far side of the lift. Her tonsured hair was matted with blood, and she was carrying a slender pistol that looked older than the Convent itself.
As Vhuna and Koju stepped off the rockcrete platform and onto the shifting wooden boards of the lift the night air was shattered as the first volley was unleashed by the earthshaker cannons of the Basilisks at the far end of the plateau. The onrushing wall of thunder almost drove the psy-scape from Vhuna’s mind. Were this planet’s single moon to plummet out of orbit and land in pieces around her it could not match that peerless peal, that heavenly clarion call and she gloried in the havoc that would ensue among the xeno numbers swarming in the valley far below.
The lift jolted once and then began to descend, the massive winch clanking as the chains unwound. The Sisters began their intonations in low, murmured voices, punctuated by successive devastating volleys from the Basilisks and the overlapping crump-crump-crump of batteries of mortars shelling the locations Vhuna had picked out.
She was confident there would be little in the way of return fire. Among the forms she had sensed were the xeno equivalents of artillery; massive armoured slug-like beings that had been gathering about half-way up the far side of the valley. They had moved slowly into position, and now the same lack of speed would ensure their utter annihilation under the merciless Imperial shelling.
An etching of silver had detached itself from the alien mass. She had been following its approach up the road to the plateau in her mind, and the look on her face as it first drew near to the Imperial forces and then slipped past them without being noticed drew Koju’s attention.
“What is it?”
“Something travelling on the surface, but it just slipped through the forward lines. How can it do that?” Vhuna pointed through the darkness. The plateau was laid out below them, the landing-site arclamps throwing ghostly, white columns skywards and the myriad lights of the Imperial forces spread out around it. If there was weapons’ fire, they would have seen it clearly.
“It’s passing right through Captain Monilex’ tank Company. Over there.” Vhuna tried to show Koju the location. “Throne, there’s two more on their way up the sides of the road. What the hell are they?”
But Koju was already on the vox trying to raise Captain Monilex.
“He says there’s nothing there, Vhuna,” said Koju, after a moment.
“Throne, he’s right on top of it! I can see him. And it. It’s heading for the Command Tent. Get the tank to his left to reverse, hard. Now, dammit!”
Vhuna gripped onto the chain and looked out. She could see nothing untoward, and could not even make out Captain Monilex’ Leman Russ in the stark confusion of light and shadow. Then lasfire began stitching the air far below, and the clatter of heavy bolters rose faintly through lulls in the ongoing bombardment. Isolated klaxons began to wail, thin and reedy, and floodunits burst into light around the lasfire, rippling outward like waves in a pond.
Koju stood beside her, looking on as more and more fire was poured on to something they could not see. It slowly subsided, and then stopped. The floodunits remained lit, but the klaxons ceased.
“They got it. Whatever it was. Two more coming up the road, you say?” Koju got back on the vox to prevent another breach of the frontlines. A minute later a conflagration erupted at the farthest end of the plateau as flame weapons a mile away turned the xeno assassins into charcoal. It looked like they had been heading for the artillery units.
Koju chuckled as he closed his vox link. “You know, you’re in danger of changing the Colonel’s mind, Shiny. Keep this up he might even ask you out to dinner.”
“And I might take up Holy Orders if he does. Have you seen his teeth? I’ve seen barroom ceilings that looked whiter.”
Koju tried to hide his smile, and then laughed when he failed. The lift continued its descent through the void.
THREE MONTHS PREVIOUSLY:-
The glasscrete walls of the small chamber were smooth, dark and damp in the chill air. The sunshine and warmth at the surface of Ventia Illustra would never penetrate this far underground. Miles above, white surf crashed into golden sands studded with mangled wreckage spilling oil and blood, both red and green, into the salt water all along the once beautiful coast. The warboss was dead, but the orks were not done yet, and fighting still raged.
Koju sat back in the flimsy plastic chair, tapping his fingers on the data-slate perched on the armrest. He heard a sound at the barred, reinforced door and shot out of the seat, standing to attention in the blink of an eye.
Lord-General Tenebrant entered. There was no sign of his retinue in the dim hall outside. Commissar Vodalus followed him in, his gutka-pipe wreathing him in dense smoke.
The Lord-General took the data-slate out of Koju’s hand as he strode past him, and then sat behind the plaswood desk, leaving both men standing.
“The Matroyshka. Makes interesting reading, Cadet Commissar.”
“If it – he – whatever – can do what this claims, then yes. Interesting is hardly the word.”
“It can. You saw the seal, so you know that this experiment has some – senior – sponsors. I’m being watched very closely. Very closely.” The Lord-General’s tone made it clear this was not something he tolerated with anything approaching goodwill. It also probably explained why a Lord-General felt it necessary to give such a mundane briefing himself. “You read what happened to the last watchman, so you know why we need a psychic blank this time. There’s not many with your gifts around, Cadet, so don’t wind up like him.”
Koju nodded as Lord-General Tenebrant triggered an icon set into the desk. The metal shutters on the far wall clanked as they opened. Beyond was a window looking into a starkly-lit cell, with no furnishings. The sole occupant, a bald-headed woman wearing Guard uniform and heavy bracelets that might have been manacles, paced up and down the room, smoking gutka-sticks. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was being watched.
Lord-General Tenebrant stood and walked over to the window, gesturing curtly to both men to join him.
“This is Stage One. Calls itself Vhuna. This is the stable stage. All other stages return here once their adrenaline tails off. She’s small, but don’t let her fool you, Cadet Commissar. She’s a prickly bitch.” The Lord-General paused – usually his coterie would give a polite laugh at this point, but then he remembered he was with Commissars, who had no known sense of humour. He grunted and carried on.
“Remember that despite all the faces you will see, Cadet Commissar, there is only one person in that room. Only one psyker. The rest are just masks he wears. Understand? Good. Your bolt pistol. I assume it’s loaded. You’re going to introduce yourself to each of them.”
Koju paused. “My bolt pistol, Lord-General?”
“Yes, your damn bolt pistol. I want you to advance the subject stage by stage, so you can meet all six. Is your man deaf, Commissar?”
Vodalus simply tapped his pipe on the wall, his expression unreadable and said nothing.
“Lord-General Tenebrant, I understood that a serum was used to –”
“Serum, my arse. That’s for the Matroyshka’s trainers at the Scholaria. Do you think you’ll have time to find a sodding vein on the battlefield?”
Koju paused. He had no qualms about administering ultimate admonition as discipline and duty demanded, but this was quite different.
“Lord-General, I –”
Tenebrant’s face darkened. “What is Stage Three, Cadet Commissar?”
Koju instantly realised the Lord-General’s point, and looked away, furious with himself for not having seen the obvious. The Lord-General wasn’t letting him off the hook so easily.
“I said, what is Stage Three, Cadet Commissar?”
“Exactly. The Boy. If your man is going to hesitate, Vodalus, if his nerve is going to fail, I don’t want him doing it for the first time on the sodding frontlines. Understand me, Cadet Commissar? Are we clear? Good. Until you lose your whitecap don’t fecking question me again.”