MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
The moon hung low over Ankara, a blood-red eye blinking as clouds of smoke drifted across the city. Machine gun fire chattered in the distance, and the stench of burning oil rode a hot desert breeze.
Imogene clutched her rifle, ears flicking at every sound. Her gaze darted back and forth over the bare asphalt separating her checkpoint from the perimeter fence. In the six months she’d been here, no one had breached that three-metre wall of concrete and razor wire. But tonight the fighting sounded close.
Sharing her sandbagged dugout, Ralph looked as nervous as Imogene felt. He was a transgenic caribou-human hybrid like herself, and easy to read. Mostly human in outline, he had thick brown fur and a ruggedly handsome deer-like face. His long ears twitched where they stuck out of his helmet, as did the white-furred tail below his waistband. He leaned with his elbows propped on the sandbags, his two combat-booted hooves lost in the shadows beside her own.
With him that twitchy, Imogene would normally make a joke about attracting flies. But not tonight. Tonight, it was enough to survive. To make it another day closer to being shipped home. That’s all that mattered.
The cough and growl of engines yanked her attention towards the outer gate. The troops there opened the barrier, and a string of tan trucks entered. Their crimson diamond patterns marked them as ambulances, but Imogene’s stomach clenched anyway. What better way to get inside the base with minimal inspection?
The vehicles sped towards Imogene and the bunker-like hospital crouched behind her position. They pulled into a tight semi-circle around the entrance she and Ralph guarded. Medics spilled out of the ambulances, some supporting limping soldiers, others pulling stretchers from the rear compartments. A meerkat hybrid on a stretcher screamed as they moved him.
Imogene flattened her ears against his cries, but the tension left her shoulders. Just more wounded. No threat. She set down her rifle and left the dugout’s shelter. With five ambulances, they might need extra hands.
More medical staff emerged from the hospital, brushing her aside in their rush to meet the incoming casualties.
A long-tusked boar from the nearest ambulance labored towards the entrance, then stumbled, falling sideways into Imogene. His hands locked on her shoulders, and she stiffened. His grip tightened, his body hot and close and reeking of fear. He grunted something, the weight of him pulling them both towards the pavement.
“Steady, steady.” Imogene wrapped an arm around him, struggling to stay upright.
Two medics sprinted forward and grabbed the boar before Imogene collapsed. They took him away, half-carrying, half-dragging him into the hospital.
Imogene stared after him. His warmth still pressed into her. She reached up to her chest. Her hand came away sticky with his blood. Her nostrils flared and she backed away from the stream of wounded still trailing by. She edged past Ralph, deep into the shadowy safety of their dugout, then closed her eyes and tried not to throw up.
* * *
“Man, that oinker got you good, huh?” Ralph’s voice echoed off the tile in their barrack’s washroom.
“Yeah.” Imogene glanced at his reflection in the mirror, then dunked her jacket into the sink again, scrubbing harder. The water took on a pink tinge, but the stain had already set. As indelible as the memory of the boar’s pain and fear.
Ralph’s boots squeaked as he came closer. “At least neither of us are career. They won’t send us outside the wall.”
“So, just the mortars to worry about?” She wrung out the jacket and slipped it on, covering the auburn fuzz where her pelt had been shaved to offset the desert heat. The cool damp would be a welcome change for the few minutes while the jacket dried. “Or wondering if tonight is the night the riots turn into a full-on coup? Or why we’re even in this gods-blasted country?”
His leathery nose wrinkled. “Then think about something else. You hear from Steve?”
A little spark of lightness kindled in her chest. Thinking of Steve always did that, even as his messages grew less and less frequent. But she’d gotten one yesterday. A good one.
“His discharge went okay,” she said. “He’s back in Helsinki, and getting things cleared with his dad for that job he promised me.”
Ralph’s muzzle bobbed in a nod. “That’s good. You’re lucky to have him, guy who can get you a job and all. Dunno what I’ll do when we’re cut loose.”
Imogene offered a sympathetic grunt. She’d felt bad turning down Ralph’s early romantic advances. Doubly now, since Steve was getting her a job, and Ralph’s prospects back in Sweden were so slim. She looked down, and the rusty stain of the boar’s blood caught her eye. Was he okay? He’d made it to the hospital, but that wasn’t always a guarantee. There weren’t guarantees for anyone here.
She tried to turn her thoughts back to Steve, but they twisted sideways to why she wasn’t with him. How her seasickness ruined his plan to get them both assigned to the same ship. Steve was home already, while her transfer to the infantry added months to her enlistment. They should have done their service together in a safe, climate-controlled berth. Instead, she was here with Ralph, sweating and hoping a stray mortar shell didn’t send her home in a box.
Her ears wilted, and she wrapped her arms around the sudden emptiness in her middle. “Gods, I wish I was home.”
“Hey there, hey.” He pulled her into an awkward, brotherly hug. “We’ll make it. Only four more weeks. We’ll get through this together.”
His strong arms closed around her, and her fear ebbed. He wasn’t Steve, but he was a friend—and here when Steve wasn’t. She returned his embrace, wishing she dared believe him.
* * *
The boar’s blood still stained Imogene’s jacket a month later as her hooves clicked down onto the tarmac of the air station north of Helsinki. Bright sun and cool air washed over her, and the scents of springtime growing things filled her with a feeling of home.
A line of other soldiers deplaned with her, mostly in their late teens like herself, but no one she knew. She and Ralph had parted ways in Berlin.
All she’d dreamed about for the past year was her compulsory service to be over, but now that it was, a hole had opened up in her chest. One shaped like Ralph and their squadmates, and the challenges they’d overcome. Strange, to feel loss over something she’d never wanted.
She frowned a little, then took a breath of the fragrant, smoke-free air and let the worry fade. She was home. There was no hole big enough to swallow the pleasure of reuniting with her family. And with Steve.
She’d only heard from him once more after the message that he’d gotten back to Helsinki. Nothing for almost two weeks now. He said everything was fine, but what else did anyone ever say? Imogene gnawed her lip. Hopefully his antler suppression drugs weren’t giving him trouble again. A lumpy forehead didn’t bother her, but he’d never admit to his body doing something outside his control.
The others filed away from the aircraft, and she followed. The inner security fence came into view between two hangars, along with a colorful mass of families waiting beyond the wire mesh. Imogene walked faster, then broke into a trot. Her gaze darted over the crowd, dismissing hares, wolves, otters—there! Her mother’s brown head bobbed amid the sea of smiling, waving fur.
She charged past the bored MPs at the gate, dropped her duffel, and threw her arms around her mother.
Her mother staggered, but pulled her closer. “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re home.”
Imogene buried her nose in her mother’s chocolaty neck ruff, drawing in her warm, familiar scent. “Me too, Mom. Me too.”
They held like that for a long, wonderful moment, then her mother pushed her out to arm’s length, dark brown eyes looking Imogene up and down. Her mother’s smile tightened, and her hands trailed up to the fuzzy stubble where Imogene’s own ruff should have been.
“Gods, your fur...was it this short when you called?”
Imogene snorted. As if she’d detour after her vid call in Berlin to get a trim. “It’ll grow back. I’m just glad it’s coming up on summer here.” She pulled her mother into another hug, then broke away to reclaim her duffel. Sliding her free arm around her mother, she steered them along with the other families towards the city bus idling at its kiosk.
Her mother took the window seat, arranging the folds of her light yellow dress around her. “So, I thought we’d head back to the apartment, and then once you’re settled, we could walk down to the waterfront or something.”
The bus lurched into motion, and Imogene sat down quickly. “Actually, I kind of wanted to go see Steve now.”
“Oh. Okay.” A pleased smile flitted at the corners of her mother’s muzzle. “They have me working odd shifts at the plant, but I’m off the rest of today. You two can have lunch, and then you and I can get caught up over dinner.”
“Spaghetti?” Imogene pricked her ears hopefully. “With real sauce? The stuff on base all had meat in it, and I’m so sick of just noodles and butter.”
Her mother patted Imogene’s knee. “Spaghetti it is. Say about six o’clock? That will give you and Steve plenty of time.”
Lunch, a peaceful stroll in the park, maybe a discreet detour into one of the abandoned buildings along the waterfront... Heat rose into Imogene’s ears. She looked away and cleared her throat. “Heard anything from Josh?” Her younger brother had started his UNA compulsory service two months ago.
“Right after you called, actually. He got his assignment: some little ship, UNS Spokane. In the Pacific Fleet.”
Her mother’s tone dropped on the last, and Imogene winced. The Unified Nations of America didn’t control the Pacific nearly as well as the Atlantic or Arctic oceans.
“It’s still Navy, though,” Imogene said. “He’ll be safe. It’s not like Turkey where the Pan-Asians can funnel in supplies and let the nationalists do their fighting for them.”
“No, thank the gods.” Her mother shook her head. “I just wish the bloody pandas would leave well enough alone.”
Pandas? Imogene blinked. Her mother never used species slang, either for the Pan-Asians or the UNA. At least she hadn’t before Imogene went away.
Imogene leaned closer so their shoulders brushed. “It’s okay, Mom. I’m okay, and Josh will be too.”
She turned their conversation to the less stressful topic of her mother’s birdwatching until the bus reached the stop nearest their apartment. Then she rode on alone, past the weathered stone buildings of downtown, before getting off to walk the last two blocks to Steve’s office.
Should she call him? The thought bubbled up, but she pushed it away. Surprising him would be more fun. He’d look confused for a moment, then smile and sweep her into his arms. She’d help him finish whatever work he had, then they’d head to the little sidewalk cafe by the park. Warm May sun shone down out of a cloudless sky—perfect for an open-air lunch.
Helsinki’s harbor district bustled around her, cute yellow forklifts scuttling about like crabs, fishing boats bobbing at their docks, pigeons flapping in the bombed-out building where she’d had her first kiss...
The memories of Steve set butterflies loose in her stomach. The normal happy ones, as well as a few nervous swallowtails. She looked down at her camouflage fatigues. Civilian clothes would have been better. Something tight, to show off her hips and chest. But that would’ve taken time. Time she could be with Steve, healing the rift their separation had opened.
A maritime-scented gust ruffled what fur the base stylists had left her. She let her ears droop and smoothed her auburn headfur with one hand. Even if her current style was more recruiting poster than glamor magazine, it wouldn’t do to arrive looking mussed.
Mussed could wait until after they’d kissed.
Fixing that thought firmly in mind, she climbed the three granite steps to the front door of Clausen and Sons Frozen Seafood.
Steve stood in the outer office, talking with someone hidden behind his broad shoulders. He turned when the chimes above the door jingled. A head taller than Imogene, and with darker fur, he was a caribou like herself. She drank in the sight of him, of his sharp gray eyes widely spaced over a strong muzzle, and his well-muscled legs leading up to a trim waist. A suit coat hid the soft creamy fur of his chest, except a tantalizing tuft peeking out through his unbuttoned collar. No sign of antler buds or anything else amiss.
He blinked at her, startled expression giving way to an uneasy smile. “Imogene, I wasn’t expecting you...here.” Rather than wrap her into a hug, he just stood there, fidgeting with a sheaf of papers.
The butterflies in her middle flapped harder. He must be nervous too, but why didn’t he seem happier to see her? She should have stopped to find one of her dresses. The green one. He’d always liked it.
“I thought I’d surprise you.” She fought the urge to smooth her fur again, and took a few steps closer. “I don’t suppose that job we talked about is still available?” Not that he’d have given it away to anyone else, but it seemed a safe topic to ease the tension.
His muzzle tightened and he looked down at his papers. “Actually, I’m afraid the position has been filled.”
Imogene felt her own smile falter. She tried to meet his eyes, but he avoided her gaze, looking anywhere in the cluttered office except at her.
“Dad might need someone out in the warehouse. Cindy? Can you pull up the personnel file?” Steve moved to stand beside the person he’d been talking to earlier, a voluptuous young rabbit behind the secretary’s desk. He peered at her computer screen, and Imogene’s jaw tightened at the familiar way his hand found the rabbit’s shoulder. The same way he’d once found her shoulder.
The rabbit looked uncertainly over at Imogene, then up at Steve. “I don’t see any openings, Stevie—I mean, Mr. Clausen.”
He finally met Imogene’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Imogene. I’d like to help you out, but with the Pan-Asians making war noises, and this latest downturn, we just can’t take on unnecessary people. I’m sure you understand.”
Imogene’s stomach turned to ice. She was unnecessary, and this rabbit wasn’t? She glared at Steve, then down at the secretary. Was that a Navy service pin on the rabbit’s lapel? Imogene’s gaze darted back to Steve. He wasn’t wearing it, but she knew he had a matching pin. Probably even with matching ship’s names.
“I think I understand, Steve. I understand just fine.”
Silence filled the office, then Steve cleared his throat. “Still, it’s good to see you again. We’ll have to get together and catch up...sometime.”
Imogene clenched her teeth behind a polite smile. “Yeah. Sometime. Thanks anyhow.”
She made it out the door and far enough down the street to put Steve’s building out of sight before she came to an uncertain stop. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk, she stared out at the harbor, then up into the pale blue sky. Her chest tightened, and despite the cool breeze, she struggled for breath.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. All her plans, not just for the afternoon, but the rest of her life—and he hadn’t even bothered to tell her. Didn’t think she was worth telling. If she’d accepted Ralph’s advances, she would have told Steve. That was only fair, wasn’t it?
Her eyes started to water, and she mouthed a silent curse. She wanted to be angry. At Steve, or the compulsory service that pulled them apart, or the rabbit who stole him. Even at herself. Anger would feel good. But all that came was pain, and a terrible, gnawing uncertainty about what else in her life might be no more than lies and stardust.
* * *
Putting the aknowledgements here since putting them at the start seemed weird online. ;3
For the fox who told me it was broken,
The dachshund who showed me how to fix it,
And the lioness, rat, war horse, and squirrel who made me care.
Also, a big thanks to all the people who gave their time and effort along the way:
My beta readers Ember, Kish, and Ruth who pinned down themes and helped tie up more loose threads than a cheap rug.
The crew over at critiquecircle.com deserve much thanks as well: Conni, EK, Jason, John, Laurel, Rick, Sharon, and all the others. Without their willingness to put up with my sloppy revisions and an angsty, complaining caribou, this book would be nowhere near as good as it is. I can't thank them all enough, and any errors I've managed to include are despite their diligent efforts.
Much appreciation also to my cover artist, Katrin, for making the book look as good on the outside as I hope it is on the inside.
Imogene never planned to become a lunar commando. Not before her ex broke her heart and left her jobless.
Now she’d better learn fast.
A soldier’s first duty is to her country, but when black and white fade to dusty gray, the lines between friend and foe blur. As everything Imogene ever believed in crumbles, she must decide if some orders should never be obeyed.
Chapter one, where it all begins.
I'll be posting new chapters twice a week, or, for the price of a fancy coffee, you can buy it now. Not only do you get instant gratification, you also get that warm fuzzy feeling from supporting an independent artist. =^_^=