Welcome to the last installment of the short story Matroyshka. For those of you waiting for it to all be up before you started, you may now begin. Part one may be found here, and at the end of each section there is a link to the next part, so you may read it as a continuous story. Enjoy.
Vhuna stared out the viewport at Coulter’s Haven. Even on the dayside the dark clouds were boiling in the atmosphere, almost covering the face of the planet. The tips of spore towers were beginning to rise through them in places, although the Navy was adroitly bombarding these as they emerged. Soon the necessary fleet elements would be in place, and the surface of Coulter’s Haven would be reduced to a lifeless dust-storm.
She looked down at the brass aquila in her hand, its smooth edges already familiar to her. There was a name on the back, barely legible beneath a skull-like symbol that had almost faded away entirely. Saint something-ana. Probably the Order’s patron. She would find a chain for it as soon as she could.
She turned and saluted as General Kurt walked through the open door. At a jerk of his head the two stormtroopers in the briefing room saluted also, and left. The door hissed closed, leaving them alone.
The General put two data-slates down on the polished table as he passed, and joined Vhuna at the viewport.
“The Matroyshka experiment is officially at an end, Psyker Vhuna. Can’t say I’m sorry. Anyone reading my report on the defense of Meteora Convent would conclude it was a fecking disaster. But no-one ever will read it. Barely half the relics made it out intact. We lost nearly eighty percent of our men. Eighty five percent of our armour. Eighty-fecking-five percent. Holy Throne. Absolute disaster. Lots of the Holy Sisters died as well, of course.”
“Did the Abbatissa survive, sir?”
“Yes, yes she did. They don’t get to that age without being tough little bit– tough, you know. Don’t let her fool you. And we got the main relic out. The – well, I can’t tell you, obviously, but thank the Emperor it’s safe.”
He turned, hands running through his grey-flecked hair and sat down at the briefing table, facing away from her. He sighed heavily. In the absence of an invitation, Vhuna remained standing.
“A disaster. And then the Ruinous Powers show up, manage to snatch a filthy xeno from under our noses, and somehow evade the whole fleet. All the way here just for that. I know they’re all barking mad, but there must be some reason why they’d do a thing like that. I’m anxious to know what my tacticians have to say about it. They should bloody well know. I’ll get new ones if they don’t.” He sighed again.
“And then the Inquisition – who, quite frankly I expected to shoot everyone involved, me included – declare themselves very satisfied with the way it went, thank you very much. Although they didn’t say it like that, of course. My report gets binned and the whole cluster-feck is declared a great victory.
“It wasn’t the relics brought the Ruinous Powers here, though. Oh, no. I don’t need a tactician to tell me that, psyker. The feint for the relics was just that – a diversion to draw troops away and let the thrice-cursed bastards have a clear run. They played this one well. Anyway. Your posting here is over.”
“I see. Back to the Scholaria, sir?”
The General gave a sour laugh. “You attracted the wrong kind of attention, girl. A long time ago. No, not the Scholaria.”
He plucked one of the dataslates from the table surface and held it out. Vhuna paused as she saw the unmistakeable rosette glowing at the top, and then walked over and took it. She realised her mouth had gone dry.
“Report to his ship by fourteen hundred hours.” He stood up, and handed her the second, encoded slate. “Both of you. Best of luck. I actually mean that, psyker. Dismissed.”
“Hey, Shiny! I was wondering when you’d come and visit me. Ah! And instead of flowers you’ve brought me new orders! You really have hidden shallows of compassion, don’t you?“
Vhuna stopped beside his cot as the Sisters Hospitaller worked silently about the ward. There weren’t that many injured officers, at least compared with the packed non-comm wards she had passed on the way. On the other hand, there weren’t many officers left full stop.
“They didn’t tell me you’d come around until an hour ago, Blunt, although I see your scintillating wit died in surgery. It will be sorely missed. Here.” She dropped the data-slate on Koju’s chest and pretended to look surprised when he winced.
His ID tags around his neck and his retinal scan unlocked the crypto, and she saw his eyes widen although she could not see the text on the screen. She had a fair idea what it was.
“You’ve got to be kidding –“ Koju said, as he read on, “– can they do that? Just transfer a Cadet – no, of course they can, they’re the sodding Inquisition. They can do whatever the hell they like. I don’t fecking believe this, Vhuna! This has got to be a mistake.”
Vhuna just waved her own data-slate in reply. “Fourteen hundred hours. You could dessert, I suppose, but the locals on Coulter’s Haven are not too friendly.”
“No way. There are some strings I can pull, you know? Get me out of this. You’re the one they really want, not me. Vodalus made it out, did you hear? Lost an arm. I’ll speak to him. Got some pull with the Commissariat sub-division HQ. No way. No fecking way.” He hurled the data-slate across the ward and slammed both fists into the cot mattress, with a heavy sigh. “No fecking way.”
He looked up at Vhuna. “I don’t have a choice, do I? I don’t have a sodding choice.”
“Welcome to my world, Blunt.”
He gave a hollow laugh. “Yeah. Right.” Shaking his head, he laughed again. “I was that close to being a Commissar, Vhuna. That close.”
“Face it. You were closer to a penal regiment, Blunt. They’d never let you be a Commissar with hair like that, anyway. Probably a good thing most of it’s been burnt away.”
Koju’s hands flew to his scalp as he uttered a cry of dismay, and only just before he caught the expression on Vhuna’s face. “Yes. Very good, Shiny. You got me.” He ran both hands over his cropped hair anyway, she noticed. Vanity. Thy name is Koju. “Oh, by the way. One of the Sisters left this for you.” He took a message tube from the drawer beside his cot, and handed it to Vhuna. She took it, turning it over, puzzled.
“You know what it says?” she asked.
“No – it’s crypto-sealed. I had to try and open it, though. I won’t deny it. I don’t like you lot talking behind my back. Not after what happened to the first guy. Anyway, she said Marotte gave it to her, just as the lander was leaving the plateau back down there. I don’t know what the hell you were thinking letting him out after what I said. You and I need to have a little chat about obeying orders.”
Vhuna used her own tags to unseal the end of the tube, and teased the message paper out.
She read it, and felt the blood chill in her veins. She read it again, shaking her head.
“No. No, this isn’t right. This is one of your jokes, Koju. This is –“ but she knew the handwriting. This was how they communicated, and she knew the handwriting of every one of them.
“What? What the feck does it say, Vhuna?” Koju struggled to lift himself up on his elbows. “Throne’s sake, woman. Tell me!”
“No. He must be wrong. He must be!” She stood up, fear and confusion flooding through her. “He must be.” But she knew Marotte’s particular talents. He could see much that was hidden, that others wanted to hide.
“For Throne’s sake, Vhuna! What!”
She walked quickly over to the other side of the ward, and before dropping the paper sheet into the medical waste immolator, she read it one final time, tears of anger and confusion forming in her eyes.
In a careful, cultured hand the message simply said, “ Carnallius knows more than he lets on – Fell has been lying to the Scholaria, about everything. He is not the source. There are others.”
Hope you have enjoyed this series. Again, this series was re-published with permission of the original author. It is in no way my own work, rather a story which I so thoroughly enjoyed, I wanted to share it with a wider audience. There are a few other pieces I may post up of his as well.
Thanks for reading.
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