Mossy Toes: Survivor
Inquisitor Thresh chambered a round into his ornate bolt pistol and ejected the magazine. It clattered to his desk.
“Tell me, Interrogator,” he said, offering the pistol to Taros Vutch with a flourish, “what is your single greatest flaw?”
Taros took it, puzzlement slowly giving way to cold, hard fear. He blinked slowly, taking a shuddering breath. “The close bond I have with my twin sister, sir,” he said. There was no denying it. Hadn't Thresh criticized him for that very weakness many times?
“Precisely. In all other matters, you are an exemplary student. I have no other reservations for sponsoring you to the rank of Inquisitor, apart from losing you as an operative. You are one of my most promising protegees—other than your illogical, detrimental attachment to Kay Vutch. The Enemy needs but one lever against you, Taros. I can guarantee you she would eventually be used as that lever, willingly or not.”
Taros stood still, the bolt pistol heavy in his hand. Thresh met his eyes, expression solemn and unyielding.
“Nevertheless, Interrogator,” he continued, “it is with deep regret that I inform you that your sister's soul is irrevocably tainted.”
Taros stiffened, biting back an outright denial. He didn't believe what he was hearing on principle, but his master was bound to have evidence for such an inflammatory statement.
“She has been, unknowingly, the Darkchild's host.”
Taros closed his eyes again. That was it, then. That was how the damnable beast had tracked them unerringly across the sector, and why her psy-sensitivity had so unerringly predicted its coming. That was why she always survived its attacks, however improbably. His heart sank even further. Thresh would not say such a thing without definite proof.
“You are certain?” Taros asked, nonetheless. He had to know, to protect, to deny-
“Irrefutably. I have had my suspicions for some time, but am now certain. When overpowered, the Darkchild named her its mother. Psy-probing and hypnotic interrogation Kay herself turned up further evidence, unwitting thrall though she had been. Chirugeon Jhal's report is here.
“Know this: an Inquisitor must be tempered steel, without flaw. I know this hurts, Taros.” Thresh's tone was the closest to compassionate that Taros had ever heard. “My own master forced me through similarly painful deeds; deeds that I resented for many years, but for which I now see the necessity. I will not release an unworthy Inquisitor upon the galaxy. I know this hurts, but these are the hammer-blows that shape you into the Emperor's blade.
“You are ready to become an Inquisitor, Taros. You need but prove to me that you can put aside your personal ties. You have one final test. Your sister awaits.”
Kay shifted in her bonds, despite that the movement send shivers of agony running down her naked, brutalized body. Voices in the corridor outside.
She understood the nightmares, now. Always falling, always bound. She knew what horror was coming, what she—gagged or muted—would be helpless to prevent.
Her body hurt, her head pounded from their drugs, and more than half of her fingers and ribs were broken. Lacerations and bruises throbbed mercilessly, unrelieved by the burning pain in the back of her neck. One of her ears had been torn off, her scalp shaved, and she didn't even want to imagine what that machine had done to the base of her skull—and to her brain. Hanging restrained and immobilized, all she had been able to do was scream.
The portal to the void safe-cum-torture chamber creaked open, and burning light lanced from beyond. She squinted, her puffed-up eyelids protesting.
“Kay,” came the whisper, and her stomach sunk in despair. She knew that tone, those words too well. “God-Emperor above, Kay.”
Taros took halting steps into the chamber. The lumen-strip hanging from the roof flickered on and the door shuddered shut behind him, locking with an automated, irrefutable clatter.
Her nightmares. This was them, played out in flesh. He would stagger forward, apologize. He would jam the blade of the knife into his trachea and his eyes would work silently, beseechingly, as he sunk to the floor. She couldn't let that—she had to stop-
He lurched forward to touch her cheek. Despite the caress's gentleness, it only stung her bruises.
“Don't,” she hissed, her voice cracked and raw. She couldn't let it happen. She could argue him out of it. She could convince him not to commit suicide.
He jerked away, obviously thinking she was talking about his touch. But a thrill of elation filled her. She could speak, and he carried a gun, not a knife. The future wasn't set. It could diverge
“I'm sorry-” he began, but she cut him off harshly.
“Don't do it. I know what you're planning. I've seen it in my dreams; I see it in your eyes. It's not worth throwing yourself away for me. I'm already dead.”
“Kay,” he breathed, agonized. “I've already lost you once, for eight long years. I can't let you get taken away again. I can't live without-”
His voice failed.
“You walk out of this chamber alone,” she said, “or neither of us leaves. It's that simple, Tar. There aren't any other options. Besides,” she said, and coughed, “you always wanted to serve the Imperium and see the stars.”
“I've served. I've seen. But if this is the price—I've served and seen enough.”
“Then who will prevent the atrocities like Hive Colocanis? Like Karisas and Teketomos? Even if it hurts, Taros, I'm too—broken—for you to give yourself up over. You have to live.”
It hurt too much for her to speak. That, she told herself, was why her breath came in ragged gasps; why her vision blurred and ran. Taros's breath was rough too, and his shoulders were shaking. She hadn't seen him cry since they were underhive slum-children on Carcosair, in a hive that had been dead for almost two decades.
The only noise was their breathing. She had to push him, convince him. She had to change his mind.
“I'm sorry,” he said, lifting the pistol. It's barrel lifted and wavered toward her. Nothing was certain until he pulled the trigger. She could see the hole that a magazine would normally occupy; he had been sent in with one bolt. What would she do if he killed himself and left her dangling here, helpless, over his corpse? “I'm sorry, Kay.”
She closed her eyes, waiting for thunder to roll.