MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Imogene stared up at her mother’s apartment building. Old and gray, it rose to ten stories of utilitarian serviceability. Of the four buildings that had surrounded a small park, only it survived. Two others were rubble, while the fourth clawed at the sky with broken, concrete fingers.
Most of Helsinki was like that. Twelve years after the Unified Nations of America “liberated” the city, the cleanup effort was far from complete. Especially away from the wealthy neighborhoods. Imogene couldn’t remember what it was like before the UNA. Derelict buildings and mounds of broken concrete seemed the natural state of things.
Rather than risk the lumbering and temperamental elevator, she pushed open the door to the stairwell. Someone had spray painted it with a rough version of the Finnish Freedom Front’s logo while she was away.
Annoying, but at least the vandalism offered a distraction from the pain Steve had left churning in her gut.
She frowned at the entwined triple-F, then sighed and started to climb. What point was there in resisting the UNA when that would only open the door for the Pan-Asian Federation to return? Neither superpower gave a tail flick for the locals, and there was no chance Finland could stand against them alone.
Most people here understood that, and knew enough to accept things and move forward. Unlike in war-torn Turkey.
Or was that a trap, too? During the PAF era, her father had done his best to move forward. He’d died fighting in the Pan-Asian Defense Force, and left her mother with two kids and no way to provide food or shelter. Her mother had worked hard to get them a place even this nice. Now that Imogene was done with school and free of the military, she wanted to help.
Their door recognized her implanted ident chip on the third hand wave and let her in. She almost wished it hadn’t. Her mother was bound to ask about Steve, and Imogene didn’t know what to think, let alone say.
In the living room, her mother’s dark brown fur clashed with the threadbare violet sofa. She set aside a datapad and looked up. “I didn’t expect you back so soon. Was Steve busy?”
“Yeah.” Imogene slumped into an armchair. “Him and his rabbit bimbo.”
Imogene’s ears wilted. “I should have expected it. I didn’t tell you, but we...sort of drifted apart. I figured we could work things out after I got back, but now, it’s not looking like it.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” Her mother leaned forward to squeeze Imogene’s hand. “I know you really liked him.”
“Yeah.” Tears welled up again, and she bit her lip. “I guess maybe I shouldn’t have.”
Her mother made a noncommittal noise and smoothed the fur on the back of Imogene’s hand.
It would be so easy to break down and unload all her confusion and grief. But doing that wouldn’t change anything, except maybe to make her feel better—and her mother worse. Imogene forced those painful feelings back into the cage where they belonged. She’d deal with them later, on her own time and terms.
She took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “Anyway, now I need to find some other job.”
“I suppose.” Her mother sat back on the sofa. “If you want, I can try to get you something at the plant.”
Imogene suppressed a grimace. Replacing some broken robot on a fish packing line wasn’t quite what she had in mind. “I thought you said they were cutting everyone’s hours already?”
“I have a few favors built up. Maybe enough to get you in despite that.” Her mother frowned, counting something off on thick-nailed fingers. “You don’t really need a job. Things are a little tighter than they were, but we’ll manage.”
Imogene’s mouth tightened. Unnecessary, just like she was to Steve. Not that her mother meant it that way, but Imogene [i]wanted[/i] to be useful.
Before the sting could deepen, her mother rose and pulled Imogene up beside her. “Why don’t I help you dig out your old clothes and we’ll go down to Kaivopuisto?” she named the waterside park Imogene had always loved. “The trees are all leafing out, and we can have pear pie and ice cream. It’s your first day back, so we should do something special.”
* * *
Imogene’s pelt grew out from its short desert buzz in the weeks that followed, restoring the face in her mirror to the slightly plain, broad-nosed, green-eyed deer in all her family photos. Thank goodness, too. Shaved fur was for punks and jocks.
The maple leaves in the park had grown as well, spreading to knit an emerald canopy beneath a cloudless mid-morning sky. The sweet scent of lilacs filled the air. Birds chirped, wild rabbits nibbled at the grass, and Imogene couldn’t bring herself to enjoy any of it.
Her continued failure at job hunting saw to that. She’d even accepted her mother’s help at the fish-packing plant, but apparently it took more than favors to get a job.
Sitting slumped on a park bench, she tried to ignore the smell of the drunk sleeping two benches over. To ignore the wolf pawing through the garbage beside a long-unemptied trash can. To ignore the latest message from Ralph, saying he’d given up looking for work and reenlisted. Navy, at least, so he should be fairly safe.
She wished for the thousandth time since returning that she’d picked something other than demolitions for her military specialization. At least if she’d gone in for motor pool she’d have a chance. More people would pay you to fix a car than to blow one up. So far, the only place to even accept her application was the government job service. After seeing her qualifications, the clerk offered her a welfare application, too.
She wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. There had to be someone who wanted her somewhere. She just had to keep looking. That’s what she told herself, but the future was fast becoming a topic she didn’t want to think about.
She stood and walked deeper into the park, trying to lose herself in the comforting lilac haze.
A burst of children’s laughter erupted beyond a hedge, and Imogene smiled. [i]They[/i] knew what to do with a beautiful summer day. She rounded the corner, saw where they were playing, and her hopefulness drained away.
Two felines and a skunk took turns throwing rocks through the doorway of an abandoned air-raid shelter, listening with glee to the echoing splashes.
The skin crawled beneath Imogene’s fur, but she couldn’t look away.
There’d been a shelter twelve years ago, too, under the army hospital where her father worked. And water.
Memories of the UNA invasion flooded up from the dark corners of her mind. Of fear, and the thick musk of too many bodies crammed into too little space. Of ice-cold water rising, lapping at her hooves. Her knees. Her chin. Then the screams and smoke outside, the acrid taste of terror and confusion as she searched for her father. And then finding him—
Imogene shook her head sharply. Yet another topic she’d rather not think about.
She turned her back on the children and their games. The tight-packed buildings of the city center crowded just beyond the trees, frowning down and daring her to resume her search.
Three rejections and a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” later, she stood on a corner, waiting for the light to change.
Across the street stood the Unified Nations of America Armed Forces recruiting office. She’d walked by countless times in the past weeks, but this was the first she really looked at it.
Unlike the rest of downtown, the six story building was freshly painted, and no obvious bullet holes marred the blue walls or elegant 19th-century trim. But that wasn’t the building’s most eye-catching feature.
Large posters covered the facade, each cycling through a collection of images. Jungles, deserts, tanks and helicopters, men and women from a dozen species—all determined, confident. And everywhere the red and blue circle crest of the UNA.
One image of a dead gray landscape drew her gaze.
A dozen armored soldiers crouched in the shadow of their personnel carrier, while above, a jagged ridgeline cut the blue-white disc of Earth. Clean slate-gray plains spread out in all directions, stark and beautiful beneath the stars. The display shifted, and three menacing tanks plowed across a dusty, crater-specked valley. Then a handsome panther stood in full lunar body armor, helmet under one arm, gauss rifle cradled in the other. Another shift, and the panther posed shoulder to shoulder with his grinning squadmates beside an armored vehicle.
Imogene forced her gaze down to the pavement. Propaganda. It was all propaganda. There was a reason the lines of people waiting at the job service didn’t reenlist, and she’d seen it first hand. Been smeared with it, and seen it carried screaming into triage.
But that was Army Infantry. There weren’t any belligerent natives on the moon. No pawns for the UNA and Pan-Asian Federation to push back and forth at each other without declaring the open war neither side wanted.
And there was a grain of truth behind that panther’s plastic smile. It had felt good to be a part of something this past year. She didn’t think of herself as a joiner, but that sense of common purpose and belonging had been real.
She looked up again, but the panther was gone, replaced by the slogan “Together, we can make a difference.”
A warm, coppery taste came into her mouth, and she realized she was biting her cheek. It was time to accept what some part of her had known for weeks now.
No one really wanted her here.
She could stay with her mother, scrape by from one welfare payment to the next, but that was a shabby sort of life. No, if she wasn’t wanted here, then she’d go somewhere else.
Before she could talk herself into waiting, she crossed the street and pushed open the recruiting office door. Inside, only two desks were occupied, and no customers but herself.
The grizzled brown otter nearest the entrance watched her cross the lobby and offered a wide smile. “What can we do for you?”
“I want to sign up.”
“Excellent.” His long whiskers twitched. “Which branch did you compulsory with? Or do you want to switch? Navy’s the best money now. There’s a two thousand credit signing bonus if you put in for Pacific Fleet or Maritime Infantry.”
Imogene’s stomach clenched. Her one, very brief, stint at sea had been enough. She’d scrubbed decks and learned sea-shanties, but mostly she’d vomited. It didn’t take much of that to get her transferred elsewhere.
“No, thanks. I’m thinking infantry. Luna Corps.”
The clerk lifted an eyebrow at the last. “Stars in your eyes, eh? Luna Corps is the best of the best, but there’s extra med-tests, and a minimum twelve-year hitch with no guarantee you’ll get off-world. Still interested?”
Imogene hesitated. Twelve years was a long time. She’d be thirty before the contract expired. She hadn’t even known she’d be here this morning; how could she guess what she wanted that far into the future? And what if she ended up in one of the radioactive or ice-covered hellholes Luna Corps took care of here on Earth?
But staying home wasn’t an option. Whatever made her look at that poster was in control now, and she knew with the certainty of a rat fleeing a sinking ship that she had to go.
“Yep. I’m sure.”
The clerk smiled again, clicking his teeth for extra emphasis. “Good choice. Fill these out and sign ’em. You’ll have to go over to the Air Corps hospital for the tests. I can make an appointment for today, if you’d like.”
“That would be great.” Imogene accepted the datapad he held out to her.
She found a seat and filled out several screens’ worth of forms, then let the datapad’s bio-scanner watch her retinas while she signed on the dotted line. She was committed now, unless the medics found something wrong.
When she returned the datapad, the clerk gave it a cursory glance. “Looks good. I’ve got you scheduled over at the base for three-thirty. You know how to get there?”
He reached over his desk and shook her hand. “Best of luck then, Soldier.”
* * *
Fifteen kilometres north of the city proper, Helsinki-Vantaa Air Station squatted in the midst of a heavily bombed industrial district. Scrubby trees and brush grew up through the rubble, doing their best to hide the burned-out shells of factories and warehouses. The air station itself was kept clear, and the buildings behind its multilayered perimeter fences were in good repair.
The city bus took her as far as the second checkpoint, and from there it was a short walk to the hospital. Taller and cleaner than the one she’d guarded in Turkey, it was lower and more strongly built than the old one where her father had worked—and died.
At least the UNA had torn down the PAF hospital’s ruins and started fresh. The white concrete and glass held no painful memories.
The receptionist directed Imogene to a small waiting area where a handful of other people sat. One by one they were called back until only she remained. Then it was her turn to be poked, prodded, and finally released back to the vacant waiting area to fret while her extra lab work was done.
Would she pass, or be found as unacceptable here as everywhere else? And would that be a bad thing? Her thoughts kept circling back to that twelve-year contract. And her mother. Lunar duty was far safer than the ground forces, but her mother still wasn’t going to like it.
A tall ferret with a lieutenant’s rank tabs on his collar entered the room. He glanced at a datapad, then up at her. “Imogene Haartz?”
“Yep.” She rose from her chair, too tense to stay still.
“The bad news is you’re gonna die. Good news is you might get to do it on the moon.”
Imogene’s heart fluttered. For good or ill, there was no way out now.
“Everything checks out, then?” she asked.
“Yep. Welcome to Luna Corps, Private.”
“Yes, sir.” She straightened, clasping her hands behind her back.
He consulted his datapad again. “You’re lucky too, straight up to Luna, no messing around down here. We’ve got a cargo plane heading south tomorrow. You can hitch with them as far as Berlin.”
Imogene blinked. “Tomorrow?”
“Oh-six-hundred.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Unless you need more time to get your affairs in order?”
She blinked again. They were that desperate for recruits? But what did she have to gain by waiting? The extent of her “affairs” so far had been pulling her civvies from storage. “No, I think I can manage.”
“Good. Show up early so they can cut your travel papers.” He tapped a quick entry into the datapad. “One standard duffel of personal stuff, and be sure to leave room for your new fatigues. Any questions?”
Imogene shook her head.
“Right then.” He checked his chronometer. “You’ve got about fifteen hours. Make the most of it.”
Her mother wasn’t home when Imogene returned to the apartment. Part of her was glad for the extra time before breaking the news, while another part just wanted to get it over with.
Too keyed up to sit still, she put the nervous energy into packing and tidying up. That didn’t take as long as she’d hoped, so she moved on to preparing dinner. Vegetarian spaghetti, with extra oregano and garlic since her brother Josh was off in the Pacific somewhere and couldn’t complain. She’d just turned the sauce down to simmer when her mother returned.
“That smells wonderful.” Her mother’s ears perked from their weary half-droop, and she took another sniff. “Just let me get cleaned up first.”
Imogene gave her a head start on the shower before starting the noodles. The boiling water frothed and bubbled, roiling under its own pressure.
They made small talk through the first part of the meal while Imogene worked up her courage.
“So,” she said into a lull in the conversation, then rushed onward, “I signed up for Luna Corps today.”
Her mother flicked one ear in amusement. Then she glanced up at Imogene and set down her fork. “You’re serious?”
“Yeah.” Imogene projected more certainty than she felt. “I’ve never quite known what I wanted to do, but this feels right.”
“Right? It feels right?” Her mother’s tone left no doubt what she thought of it.
Imogene frowned. Compared to her usual brooding, the decision was impulsive, but that didn’t mean it was wrong. What had all that planning gotten her, anyway?
“It’s not an unreasonable choice,” she said. “After all, Father was a soldier.”
Her mother’s lips compressed to a hard line. “And it got him killed.”
Imogene’s ears went limp and she looked down at her plate. “I know.”
A long quiet crept past, then her mother sighed. “Well, don’t worry about it too much. Tomorrow we’ll go down to the recruiting office and get things straightened out.” She picked up her fork and speared a chunk of onion.
The words slithered into Imogene’s folded ears. They’d get things straightened out. As if this were some childish indiscretion. Her jaw bunched. All her life’s plans might be collapsing lately, but this was one course of action she could follow through. She forced her ears up and met her mother’s eyes.
“It’s too late. I’m shipping out tomorrow.”
Her mother’s eyes widened. “Tomorrow?”
Imogene nodded. “Early.”
The pain on her mother’s face sent guilt trickling through Imogene’s veins.
“You realize you’re leaving to fight for the people who killed your father?” Her mother’s mouth turned down at the corners. “Isn’t it bad enough they’ve stolen you and Josh away for their beastly Year’s Service? And now you’re running off to help them? Willingly?”
Imogene winced. Flags and labels didn’t mean much, but betraying her father’s memory unsettled her. Had his allegiance to the Pan-Asian Federation been more than a matter of convenience? There wasn’t much difference between the PAF and UNA as far as Imogene could see, but had he felt that too?
“It’s a job, Mother, and one I happen to be good at.” That last wasn’t exactly true, but her scores [i]were[/i] good enough to get her accepted. Luna Corps didn’t take second-rate people. “Do you really think Dad would have wanted me to lie around leeching off UNA charity?”
“I know he wouldn’t want you to get hurt or killed.” Her mother looked down, blinking back what might have been tears. “I...I’m sorry. But whatever you say or think, I [i]know[/i] this is a mistake.” She pushed back from the table and retreated into her room.
Imogene stared at the crimson sauce covering her plate. The image blurred, and she closed her eyes against the water filling them. What if her mother was right? What if this was the biggest blunder she’d ever make? But all the paperwork had been signed, and her commitment made. The clean gray expanse of the moon and that handsome panther’s smile still called her.
She rose and started clearing the table.
It might be a mistake, but it was one she had to make.
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 two, where decisions are made, and bridges burnt.
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