MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
In the dead dark hours between yesterday and tomorrow, Imogene’s alarm roused her from an uneasy sleep. Fixing breakfast made enough noise she must have woken her mother, but the door to the older caribou’s room stayed shut.
Imogene lingered over breakfast, hoping her mother would come out to say goodbye. Her toast grew cold, and then the bus appeared in the distance. Stuffing the toast into her mouth, she snatched up her duffel, and with a last glance around the familiar apartment, hurried down to the street.
She reached the base by five, and by six-oh-five, rode south in the belly of a cargo plane. The roar of the drive fans filled her ears, but couldn’t drown her thoughts any more than the reek of scorched grease took away the bitter taste in her throat.
Would it have killed her mother to say goodbye? It wasn’t fair to leave things like this. Not to either of them. Heat crept into her face and ears. That was right: it wasn’t fair to either of them. Imogene could have asked for that deferment the ferret offered. Stayed long enough to patch things up. Maybe she should have. But why did she have to be the one to bend? It wasn’t her irrationality causing problems.
A frustrated snort broke from her muzzle. She didn’t want that anger or guilt, but no matter how hard she pushed them away, one or the other sprang right back.
The engines changed pitch and she looked out to see land beneath them once more, damp woods and fields rising up from a carpet of mist.
After some delay finding her way out of the freight section of the Berlin airport, she rode a series of maglev trains south and west. Trying not to brood, Imogene concentrated on the changing scenery. Deep green forests and croplands blurred past, giving way to the yellows and tans of Iberia. The final train sped across the ruined sea level control barrier at Gibraltar and into the deserts of northern Africa.
There, tunneled into the jagged peaks of the Atlas Mountains, lay Toubkal Spaceport. One of four major launch sites under UNA control, Toubkal’s 500 kilometre-long linear induction catapult kept up a steady stream of traffic into low Earth orbit.
Imogene’s middle tightened. The catapult was basically a large-bore electric cannon. Was the distance she was about to put between herself and all her earthly problems really worth becoming a caribou-shaped artillery shell?
The maglev sped alongside a landing field where returning spacecraft were towed back into the mountain like so many beached whales, then the train plunged into a tunnel of its own.
Deep underground, she detrained into a vaulted chamber where herds of people milled about on loading platforms. Her nose twitched, dropped into the middle of a three-way battle between desert heat, musky sweat, and the cold, sterile air pumped out by the ventilation system.
While supposedly a joint facility, the gray uniforms of Luna Corps outnumbered khaki fatigues ten to one. Of course that didn’t count the dozens of support personnel in their rainbow of jumpsuits and coveralls. There was no telling from which branch they hailed.
At the processing center, Imogene claimed her new fatigues. No boots were offered, which suited her just fine. Ugly and uncomfortable footwear was useless on the moon where everything was either indoors or required a spacesuit.
Looking at herself in the dressing room mirror, she gave her short tail a sassy flick and smiled. The gray camo didn’t complement her coloring like the khaki had, but it spoke volumes about its wearer. Luna Corps was the best of the best. And presuming she made the cut in training, that meant she was the best.
Her shuttle was already boarding when she found it, and she got only a brief glimpse at the sleek, white craft before it swallowed her. The passenger cabin looked much like conventional aircraft she’d ridden: two seats on either side of a narrow aisle and small, oblong windows.
Reassured by the familiarity, Imogene settled into an empty row near the middle. Once the four-point harness was snugged across her lap and shoulders, she sat still and tried not to think about why the restraints were needed. She’d gulped the motion-sickness tabs handed out as they boarded, but the prospect of being shot from a glorified cannon tied her stomach in knots.
“This your first time up?”
She startled and looked up into a pair of golden, feline eyes. Their owner smiled down at her, his tawny brown ears perked forwards.
Imogene’s ears drooped. “Does it show that much?”
“Yep.” He slid gracefully into the seat beside her. “But don’t worry—I’ve only been up once myself, and I held on so tight I nearly broke the armrest. It’s really not so bad, just a steady pressure pushing you back until we clear the launch tube, a little bump, and then it’s smooth sailing.” He bent to cram his duffel under the seat.
“That’s what I keep telling myself, but my guts just won’t listen.”
“You’ll do fine.” The feline won his battle with the duffel and settled back into his seat. “I’m Victor Vidal, by the way.” He gave the name an odd pronunciation, rolling the R and reminding her of old, dead languages from before the Unification.
“Imogene Haartz.” She extended a hand, which he shook. His firm grip hinted at a controlled strength.
Her gaze followed the outlines of a well-muscled body beneath his gray uniform. A small red and blue corporal’s insignia pinned to his collar drew her attention up to a regal, long-whiskered face. She couldn’t quite place his species. Caramel brown fur spoke for puma, but faint spots and rosettes suggested leopard or jaguar.
She was about to ask him about it when a loud tone filled the cabin, followed by the bored voice of the pilot asking everyone to fasten their harnesses and remain seated.
The shuttle lurched into motion, and Imogene clutched the armrests.
“Don’t worry, we’re just taxiing into position,” Victor murmured. “They’ll give us a countdown before the launch.”
“Right, right.” She forced herself to relax. “You know, I’d feel a lot better about this if they didn’t call the launcher a railgun.”
“There are other names for them, but most of them are just as bad,” he offered.
Not wanting to dwell on those other names, Imogene looked out the window. They’d joined a short line of similar shuttles waiting before the launch tube’s airlock. Luna-bound launches were only practical for a short period each day, and the space port operated at fever pitch to get as many shuttles airborne as possible.
At last it was their turn, and a metallic thump and jerky stop announced their shuttle had coupled with the launch armature.
As promised, a ten second countdown flashed across overhead displays, and some of the more adventuresome—or crazy—passengers chanted along with it. Imogene tensed, braced for a resounding “Zero!” she would never hear as the passengers’ final cry vanished in the crackling roar of the railgun.
A giant, invisible hand reached out and smashed Imogene into her seat.
Intellectually she knew what was going on. A high-voltage arc between their shuttle and the twin rails induced a magnetic field which pushed the shuttle down the airless launch tunnel at something close to four Gs of acceleration. She also knew it should take less than ninety seconds to reach full speed.
Crushed back into the suddenly rock-hard seat and struggling for each breath, it felt like an eternity.
A tremor ripped through the cabin as they shot through the launch tube’s plasma windows, hitting progressively thicker atmosphere before soaring into the desert sky. Her breath came easier as the pressure reduced, only to be forced out again as the shuttle’s engine roared to life, making up the remaining velocity needed to reach orbit.
The sky faded from cobalt through turquoise and pale cyan to the velvet black of space. The sound of the wind fell away, and the shuttle stabilized, back in the element for which it was designed. The quiet lasted only a moment before a scattering of cheers and whistles washed over the passengers.
Imogene realized her hands were still locked on the armrests, and eased them loose. Her arms floated strangely without Earth’s gravity, and a smile spread across her muzzle. Then the full force of the feeling hit her and she clamped onto the armrests again, trying not to be sick.
Several rows ahead, a young white rabbit’s ears laid back while he vomited into a small sack. His black lab seatmate patted him on the shoulder, looking on with a uniquely canine expression mixing both sympathy and tongue-lolling amusement.
“Pobre conejito,” Victor murmured, eyes also on the rabbit.
Imogene glanced over, but let his cryptic utterance pass. Outside her window, the majestic blue arc of Earth was sliding from view. The shuttle continued climbing, and she watched avidly until the last scrap of the sapphire planet disappeared.
“Please remain seated,” a voice said over the intercom. “We’re less than thirty minutes out from the Luna-2 transfer station, and will be maneuvering. You get up, and you’d better hope your injuries are limited to bruises. The last person who got blood on my upholstery was sent back to Earth. Without a ship.”
Beside her, Victor made a disappointed noise. “Figures. Waste of zero-g if you ask me.”
“Oh?” Imogene glanced around the crowded compartment. “Can’t blame them; flailing around in here you’d be sure to hurt someone.” Her stomach was settling, but staying seated sounded like a very good idea.
“Yeah.” He frowned for a moment, then chuckled. “How about this?” He pulled a pen from the front of his uniform and set it down in midair, half a metre before his muzzle. It stayed there, tumbling slowly around its center of gravity.
Imogene couldn’t take her eyes off the spinning pen. It was the sort of stupid trick she’d seen on countless documentaries, yet here, in person, it was mesmerizing.
When the pen came horizontal again, Victor tapped it with one finger, sending it floating her way. He flashed her a dazzling white smile with his pointed teeth, and Imogene felt a flutter in her middle that had nothing to do with the gravity.
Suddenly self-conscious, she looked back to the pen, then tapped it towards him. She misjudged the angle, but Victor caught the writing implement before it escaped, and returned it to a gentle tumble between them.
“Trickier than it looks, huh?” he said. “I’d dearly love to try floating and spinning myself.”
Imogene nodded, sneaking a look at his shining golden eyes. “We’ll have to when we change shuttles. And I’ve heard the Luna ones are bigger, maybe you can try it then.” Something occurred to her and her brows knotted. “I thought you said you’d been up before?”
“That was just a little sub-orbital hop.”
“Oh. Then you’re new to Luna Corps, too?”
“Afraid so. No picking my brain for easy answers.” He laughed.
Imogene chuckled too, letting her gaze slide over him again. His uniform pegged him as infantry, and if he were new as well, they might end up in the same unit. In fact, she hoped they would. After eleven months waiting for Steve, then finding out she shouldn’t have, Imogene wasn’t sure she wanted to spark up a new relationship. But Victor seemed nice, and he was certainly handsome.
The spindly struts and walkways of the Luna-2 transfer station came into view. Little atmospheric shuttles weren’t economical for long distances, so passengers and cargo shifted into larger ones for the trip out to the moon.
The assemblage of habitat modules, solar arrays, and docking ports floated nearer. A dozen sleek white shuttles clustered around one pylon, while three larger, blocky craft occupied another.
Their shuttle joined the others with a muffled clank. The airlock hissed open, and the pilot’s voice came over the intercom.
“That’s it folks. Be sure to collect your belongings, and any small children you may have brought along as a snack. Quick tip for any dirtpaws: pull your duffel out before unfastening your seat-belts, and then keep a grip on the railing. If you’re still here after I finish the shutdown checklist, I’ll give you a hand. I’m not gentle. Don’t be here.”
This obviously wasn’t the first trip for most of the passengers, and they moved out with a minimum of delay. That left Imogene and the dozen or so other “dirtpaws” to fumble in the microgravity.
Victor had the sense to wait for the regulars to clear the aisle, but the minute they did, he was up. Ears pricked forward and long tail waving in an attempt to keep nonexistent balance, he floundered out into the aisle. Grasping at the seats and railings, he turned back to Imogene with a wide grin.
“Come on.” He waved her up. “The swimming’s fine, and you don’t want to be here when the pilot shows up, do you?”
“I suppose not.” Tentatively, she unfastened her restraints and rose. Rose right off the floor. Her stomach lurched and she clutched at the seat in front of her. The nausea urged her to hold still. But Victor was waiting. Swallowing hard, she looped her duffel’s strap around one shoulder and drifted towards him.
Swimming. If she pretended she was swimming, it wasn’t so bad.
She clung to one of the ceiling rails, going hand over hand and letting her hooves trail along behind. Victor used the matching rail, and helping each other, they made it through the airlock and into the space station. More railings and a vertigo inducing tangle of shafts and corridors—and shafts that turned into corridors—led to the loading area for their lunar transport. Inside the larger craft, relief filled Imogene at the sight of a basically normal passenger cabin with proper walls, ceiling and floor.
“I hope they let us up this time,” Victor said once they were both strapped into their seats. “It’s like base jumping without needing to land.”
“They’ll have to.” Imogene cast a look over the vacant seat beside her and on towards the refresher stalls at the end of the compartment. “It’s twenty-three hours out to Luna, after all.”
“Right, right.” He drummed his hands against the armrests, obviously eager to float away again.
Closing her eyes, Imogene concentrated on the feel of the straps holding her tight against the seat. Hopefully the one-sixth gravity on the moon would be enough to keep her inner-ears happy. The Air Corps medic said it would be fine, but after her weak stomach got her kicked out of the Navy, she worried anyway.
“Mind if I sit here?” someone asked from the aisle.
Imogene opened her eyes and turned to see the white rabbit who’d been motion-sick hovering beside her. He didn’t look likely to repeat the performance, so she offered a small smile. “I guess not. But then your friend won’t have space to join you.” She nodded back to where the black lab was stuck behind a slow-moving bear.
“We’re not exactly friends,” the rabbit said, pulling himself down into the vacant aisle seat. “That’s why I want to sit here.”
“Oh.” She glanced at the lab again, seeing him now seated beside—and speaking enthusiastically at—the bear, who looked like she’d rather be anywhere else. “I see.” She turned back to the rabbit. “Anyhow, I’m Imogene, and this is Victor.”
“Alexei,” the rabbit supplied. “But don’t let me interrupt you.”
“No trouble. I was just about to ask Victor where he was headed once we get to Luna?” She raised an eyebrow at the golden feline.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “My orders end at the Santbech spaceport, saying I’m to meet some Sergeant Hendricks.”
Imogene’s heart beat faster. Those were her orders as well. Could she and the handsome feline be assigned to the same squad? That would make pursuing a relationship so much easier...
“Really?” she said. “That’s mine, too.”
“And mine makes three,” Alexei put in. “I wonder if this Hendricks is in charge of sorting out new arrivals? It’d be a hell of a coincidence if all three of us were going to be in his squad.”
Imogene sighed. Alexei was probably right. Still, arriving at the same time increased the odds of Victor being in the same unit, if maybe not the same squad. She stole another glance at the golden feline. Twelve years wouldn’t be so long if she was spending it with someone like him.
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 three, love interest insert: check!
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