MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
It was more of a purr, actually, and Imogene paused to listen to the soothing vibration before opening her sleep-crusted eyes. His muscular frame filled the seat beside her, and with him asleep, she let her eyes linger on his plush golden fur and the strong lines of his jaw and muzzle.
A louder snort broke the rhythm of his breathing and he shifted in his seat. He didn’t wake, but Imogene yanked her gaze away in a guilty start.
On her other side, Alexei had his datapad out and was reading. There didn’t seem to be much else to do, so she followed his lead. Her own datapad flashed its cheerful, wildflower-bedecked welcome screen, then brought up the latest news and entertainment offerings.
Pan-Asian Federation advances in the Pacific; breakdown in negotiations for UNA military aid to Australia; shocking new photos of Seymour Raff in bed with his ex-wife’s current husband; rumors Australia was joining the PAF in return for promises of home rule; proof the living human found in Appalachia was a hoax.
The list went on and on, but right now Imogene didn’t have the patience to sift out the handful worth viewing.
She canceled out of the public grid and logged into her UNA military account. The wealth of new technical manuals that came with her lunar posting promised to be far more interesting than celebrity gossip. In addition to the “how to pee in a spacesuit” type material, her demolitions specialty granted access to several more esoteric documents.
Papers on blast physics in low-pressure environments, tabulations of radiation profiles and energy release curves—none of it really useful to a rank and file trooper, but fascinating just the same. She tried to enjoy the details, but Alexei had started up an entertainment vid that kept drawing her eyes away.
A dramatization of the Unification Wars, the vid focused on the valor and heroism of the transgenic soldiers, glossing over the fact they were counted as chattel and had no choice but to fight. That wasn’t the only creative liberty taken, but it rankled Imogene the most. True, she hadn’t known her grandparents, let alone the great-grands who’d been forced to war, but it still served the humans right their own bio-weapons got loose and their animal slaves were the only ones immune.
Of course the vid covered that too—slanted to show the noble humans passing on the torch of civilization to their worthy successors. It even made a half-hearted nod to the hoarding of medical supplies that split the Unified Nations of America from the Pan-Asian Federation.
Just as the evil PAF were about to betray their UNA allies by demanding an even share of antiserum, a tone sounded over the transport’s intercom. Alexei folded up the datapad and stuffed it in his duffel.
The tone came a second time, then the voice of a crewman advised everyone fasten their restraints and prepare for landing at Santbech.
A distant rumble and gentle tugging at her harness signaled the start of landing maneuvers. The transport turned, and pure white light flared outside Victor’s window.
Looking past him, Imogene gasped.
Almost blinding in its brightness, the silver disc of the moon crept across the star-studded blackness. What had seemed a smooth orb from the planet below now revealed itself as a scarred and tortured wasteland. Impact craters hundreds of kilometres across competed with jagged mountain ranges, all painted in shades of gray.
“Pretty forbidding place,” Alexei said, also peering out the window. “Where are we landing?”
“Santbech’s under Mare Nectaris,” Imogene answered without taking her eyes off the spectacle.
“Which is exactly where?” Alexei asked.
She and Victor both turned to stare at him.
“You signed up for Luna Corps without even looking at a map?” she asked.
Alexei frowned. “Why bother? North is panda country, south is ours. All the Latin names are unpronounceable anyway.”
“True.” Imogene flicked her ears, then looked back out the window. “You see the big, very dark patch? That’s the Sea of Tranquility. Panda country. Lighter stuff around it is the highlands. Now south, there’s a smaller dark bit, which is Nectaris. That’s ours, and Santbech’s on the south side of it.”
A roar from the main drive cut off further conversation. The deceleration burn crushed Imogene back into her seat and kept her pressed there as the transport rode its tail rockets towards the lunar surface. A saw-toothed gray ridge rose in the distance as they sank into the wide basin of Santbech Crater.
Imogene jerked forward against her restraints as they touched down. The computers might know how to kill the main engine and kick the transport into a horizontal orientation just before landing, but they sure didn’t do it smoothly. At least the moon’s one-sixth gravity kept the maneuver from turning into an outright crash.
Weight returned, Luna affectionately tugging the new arrivals into a gentle hug. Imogene’s muzzle quirked at her own whimsy, but that didn’t lessen the excitement tingling under her fur. She peered out Victor’s window, soaking in the first-hand view of another world.
Low hills surrounded the landing field, barren and gray and ramping up into the towering walls of the kilometres-deep crater. A few small buildings specked the landscape, but she knew most of the base lay below the crater’s central peak.
True to her prediction, the transport rolled forward and descended through a blast-proof door large enough to swallow a house. The sloping tunnel beyond twisted and forked before opening into a cavernous hangar. Techs in blue pressure suits swarmed over one of the parked transports, like cleaner-fish on a huge, brick-shaped shark.
Their own transport halted, and a few moments later, the long-awaited announcement came that they were free to depart.
Imogene began digging her luggage out from under the seat, but Victor put a hand on her arm.
“Hold on a minute. It’s gonna take everyone up front a while to get cleared out. We may as well take it easy till they do.”
“I suppose so.” Imogene freed her duffel with a yank, then let it rest between her knees.
Alexei did likewise. Once the aisle cleared, he rose to his paws—and promptly overbalanced. Cursing, he soared head-first over the next seat to sprawl half in and half out of the aisle.
“Are you okay?” Imogene straightened more slowly, with a firm hold on the seatback.
“Yeah.” He growled another curse and pulled himself up again. “This is worse than no gravity at all. Just enough to trick you into thinking it’s normal.”
She mumbled something agreeable, although privately she’d take one-sixth gravity over none any day. Up was up, and down was down, and her stomach and inner ears felt much better for the distinction. Keeping her motions to a cautious shuffle, she followed Alexei to the front of the cabin.
The boarding tunnel let out into a white-walled staging area where the other passengers hopped and shuffled. Most of them seemed to know where they were going, and the crowd thinned rapidly as they left on foot or riding small electric carts.
Only one of the people recruiting passengers onto carts was a sergeant, and he turned Imogene’s group away with a distracted “Hendricks? Nope.”
Soon only the three of them remained, along with one other private: a silver lynx standing by one wall. The feline straddled her duffel, with paws spread and hands clasped behind her in parade-ground-perfect posture.
After watching her a few minutes, Imogene strode over. “Looking for Sergeant Hendricks?”
“That’s right.” The lynx flicked her black-tufted ears in acknowledgment. “My orders are to wait for him here.”
“Ours, too.” Imogene nodded to include Victor and Alexei.
“So we’re squadmates then?” The lynx unbent enough to turn and face the others as they moved closer. Her yellow slitted eyes prowled over Imogene, then locked on Victor. “Lauren Porter.” She offered the name to him with a wide smile.
Imogene frowned. It took a moment to recognize the prickly feeling in her throat as jealousy. Ridiculous, since she had no claim on Victor, but there nonetheless.
They introduced themselves, with Imogene adding an, “Any idea when the sergeant might get here?”
“No,” said Lauren. “Orders say wait, so that’s what we’ll do.”
And they did. A cart piled high with blue-suited techs rolled past, but that was the only sign of life.
“I don’t think anyone’s coming,” Imogene finally said. “Do you suppose one of us should go look for him or something?”
Victor shrugged and Alexei nodded, but Lauren’s ears folded back. “That’s not what’s in the orders,” she said. “You go wandering off, you’ll miss him. Show some discipline. He’ll come for us.”
Imogene glanced down at her chronometer. “It’s been almost an hour. What if he forgot, or is waiting at a different gate? Someone around here has to be able to look up his comm-code, and I’m going to go find them.”
Most of the other passengers had gone right, so she went that way too. The clack of her hooves against tile echoed off the white walls and ceiling.
After passing six more deserted boarding areas, Imogene began to wonder if Lauren had the right idea. She kept overbalancing in the low gravity, and the exaggerated care needed to stay upright made even the modest distance between boarding gates seem like an all day trek.
She was about to stop and rest when the soft whine of a cart coming up behind made her turn. A polar bear with a private’s rank tabs drove, her tall, solidly-built frame making Lauren look almost childlike beside her.
“There she is.” Lauren pointed at Imogene, and the polar bear stopped the cart next to her.
“Sorry for the delay.” The polar bear smiled, pulling black lips from a set of very large teeth. “The sarge is busy, so he sent me to pick you up. I’m Fiona Whiting, and since you’re the last one on the list, you must be Imogene, right?”
“Yep.” Imogene returned her smile. “Thanks for finding me.”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “Like we had a choice. Now if you’re done ignoring orders, we can get going.”
Hunching her shoulders, Imogene climbed into the rear of the cart beside Victor and Alexei. At least the Sergeant wasn’t the one to pick them up. Making him chew her out for wasting time wouldn’t leave a good first impression.
* * *
“Here we are.” Fiona pushed open a door in one of the spoke tunnels radiating out from the hub of their wheel-shaped housing block. “Barracks G-nine-oh-seven.”
Imogene glanced around the pastel blue room, taking in the rows of dark-gray bunks and silver lockers. “Not too shabby. I expected something a lot more cramped.”
“I’ve seen worse,” Fiona said. “We’ve got refreshers and showers through that door on the right. Once you all get settled, I figured we’d meet up with the rest of the squad on the rec-deck.”
Imogene and the others fanned out to claim bunks, and Imogene picked one in a corner. There wasn’t any real privacy to be had, but it was better than nothing.
Back in the corridors, they passed other pedestrians. Mostly low ranking infantry, decked out in the same lunar gray camo fatigues Imogene and her companions wore. A few wore jumpsuits of various colors, indicating the cooks, mechanics, and other support personnel who kept everything running smoothly.
“Just how many people live here?” she asked after they passed through a particularly thick clump of grease-smeared technicians.
“It varies,” Fiona said. “G block will hold about four and a half thousand, and we’re as full as I’ve ever seen it. For the whole base, maybe fifty thousand?”
Fiona’s wide shoulders rolled in a shrug. “Santbech is a regional headquarters. Biggest UNA base between Tycho and Far Side, and only a few hundred klicks behind the lines. But here’s our first point of interest.”
The polar bear stopped to wave at a large, white-paneled corridor. “This runs about a klick to the north tactical block, and comes out right between the garage and a bunch of weapons ranges and storage tunnels. That’s where we’ll be spending the next couple weeks while you guys get up to speed on lunar operations and equipment.”
“Weeks?” Lauren’s tufted ears flicked back. “We’ve all been through Basic, and another nine months real service. The equipment up here can’t be that different, can it?”
“It is mostly similar,” Fiona said. “The main thing is the gravity. Everything feels and acts different here. It takes a while to get used to.”
“I hear you there.” Victor nodded. “I sure don’t want to get in a fire fight while I’m still tripping over my own paws.”
Lauren looked over at him and her ears perked up. “You’re right. That’s a good point.”
Imogene snorted. If she was any judge, the lynx wouldn’t be so fast to agree with anyone but the handsome corporal.
Fiona led them on, pointing out the large mess hall, then ascending a flight of stairs to the block’s main recreation center. Inside, the wide, well-lit passages gave way to dim, twisting alleys. Walls textured to look like old brick crowded in on either side, while above, a nighttime city sky cast murky, yellow light.
After enough disorienting corners to leave Imogene half-believing they really were in an Earth-side bar district, the alley opened out into a courtyard. Tiny artificial stars twinkled from the vaulted ceiling, and stairways led up to a balcony overlooking the plaza.
“Quite the place, huh?” Fiona gestured at the colorfully lit entrances of several eating and drinking establishments.
“It is at that.” Imogene cast her gaze over the bustling walkways between the planters.
“There are arcades and shops upstairs, and down here it’s mostly clubs and bars,” Fiona said. “Come on, I think I know where our guys are.”
The watering hole she led them to proved to be more of a lounge than a club, with warm lighting and soft music. Imogene’s ears pivoted to listen, but she couldn’t place either the genre or instruments. The lively rhythm lent an extra bounce to her careful, low-gravity stride.
“There they are.” Fiona stepped up beside two privates at the long, wood-topped bar. “Ryan Sanders.” She indicated a light-brown ground squirrel.
Ryan looked like he’d still be the shortest person in the room even if he stood on his chair. He gave them a timid smile.
“And Bruce Andersen.” Fiona nodded to the rust-colored stag beside Ryan.
Tall and lean with an attractively wide nose, Bruce sat with his elbows propped on the bar behind him. Despite his redder fur and warm brown eyes, he reminded Imogene uncomfortably of her ex-boyfriend. Then he spoke, and his accent destroyed whatever similarity she’d felt.
“Howdy.” The greeting rolled off his tongue, not quite a drawl, but not far from it.
Fiona rattled off everyone else’s introductions, and Bruce’s gaze followed. He paused on Imogene, and she felt his eyes travel from her dark hooves up to her bright green eyes before he hurried to catch up with Fiona.
“A pleasure to meet you all,” Bruce said. “Why don’t you guys order your drinks while Ryan and I push some of those tables together?” He rose to his hooves and overbalanced in the light gravity. A quick grab at the bar steadied him, and he set off purposefully towards a pair of unoccupied tables.
“If any of you want alcohol, you’d better make it count.” Fiona leaned over the counter and waved for the bartender’s attention. “Since we’re on duty tomorrow they’ll have flagged our accounts and won’t sell you more than one.”
The mournful looking basset hound barman came over and began taking orders. Imogene passed her right hand over his scanner so it could read her ident chip, then took her ale and headed for their table. She slid into a seat beside Victor and across from Bruce.
The stag caught her eyes and smiled. “So, you guys just got in?”
“Yep.” Imogene nodded. “What about you?”
“A couple hours ago. We got a night launch out of Mexico.”
Victor glanced over. “Torreon or Oaxaca?”
“Torreon,” Bruce said. “You from around there?”
“Sometimes. Mostly farther south—”
Imogene didn’t see what happened next. Someone yelled, and the next thing she knew, a round, black-and-white-furred body slammed into their table, sending up a fountain of spilled drinks.
She jerked back, which in the low gravity toppled her chair over backwards. Her yelp joined with other exclamations and the sound of glass and furniture hitting the floor.
Thankfully, the gravity also kept the fall from hurting much. She rose, sparing a quick thanks for whatever luck directed the flying drinks away from her new uniform.
A barrel-chested panda sprawled in the middle of her recovering squadmates, tangled in with the legs of the fallen table and chairs. Imogene cast a quick look around to see what had sent him crashing into them, but saw nothing unusual. Probably just drunk.
“That’s a nasty fall you took,” Victor said, helping the panda to his paws.
“Fall nothing, some fucker tripped me.” The panda’s narrow-eyed gaze darted around the wall of onlookers. “Come on out, if you’ve got the guts for a fair fight!” He raised a fist, but no one came forward. He turned back towards Victor. “Fuckers, the lot of ’em. Sorry about the mess.”
He was about to leave when Fiona heaved herself up from behind the toppled table. Something resembling a smile twisted its way onto the panda’s muzzle, and his black ears perked forward. “Hey, Fi, long time no see.”
“Oh gods.” Fiona’s ears flattened. “What do you want, Jared?”
“Nothing much.” His quasi-smile matured into a full-blown leer. “Why don’t we go someplace more private and we’ll, uh, talk about it?”
“I don’t think so.” Fiona bared her impressive fangs. “Remember what happened last time? I’m not sure what they’d bust you down to now... What’s lower than private?”
“You bitch!” His fur bristled, and he took an angry step towards her.
Victor slid between them, followed a moment later by Bruce and Alexei.
“I think the lady made herself clear,” Victor said. “How about you just call it a night?”
Jared’s fists clenched, and Imogene tensed, ready to wade in if things turned ugly. The panda took one more step, then turned and pushed his way out into the crowd.
“Fuckers. The whole fucking bunch of you!”
The front door slammed behind him, and the onlookers dispersed as the prospect of live entertainment evaporated.
“Sorry about that.” Fiona looked around apologetically before turning back to Victor. “And thanks.”
“De nada.” The big cat gave a dismissive flick of his tail.
Bruce righted Fiona’s chair, then helped Victor with the table. “Who was he and what’s his problem anyway?”
“It’s kinda complicated,” Fiona said. “His name’s Jared Chey, and he was a corporal in my old unit. Won’t take no for an answer, and for some reason thinks he’s hot stuff.”
Imogene snorted at that. Bears weren’t her type, but even if they were, the chunky panda wouldn’t get a second glance.
Fiona’s lip twitched. “I know, right? Anyhow, he kept pushing, and I ended up having to beat the snot out of him in one of the back corridors. With his record, nobody even questioned my side of it. I thought they sent him back to Earth after that, but I guess not.”
Lauren’s yellow eyes narrowed. “What I wanna know is what a panda’s doing up here anyway.”
“That’s a damn good question,” Alexei agreed. “I know they can’t keep them out of the Earth-side forces ’cause of the compulsory service, but Luna Corps is supposed to be career only.”
Imogene blinked, marshaling a counter argument, but Bruce beat her to it.
“Don’t be stupid.” The stag’s ears lay back in disgust. “Just because wild pandas used to live in east-Asia doesn’t make every transgenic panda a PAF sympathizer.”
“But you can’t deny there’s a bloody lot more of them over there,” Lauren shot back.
“Whoa, let’s just calm down.” Imogene put a hand on the lynx’s shoulder, which she immediately shrugged off. “Is that jerk really worth fighting over?”
“Right,” Bruce said. “I for one am not letting some yahoo—of any species—mess up my first day on Luna. Now, what say I go sweet-talk the barkeep into replacing these spilled drinks?”
Dubious more alcohol would be forthcoming, Imogene watched as the barman first shook his head, then reluctantly nodded. She also saw Bruce pass his hand over the credit scanner again, and resolved to split whatever the charge had been. Keeping the peace was everybody’s job.
“So, Fiona,” Victor said in a slightly raised voice, gesturing with his renewed glass of tequila. “You’ve been here awhile. What are we likely to have in store for us tomorrow?”
“First day’s usually orientation, but with the PAF shelling today they’ll probably push us through faster, so who knows?”
Imogene’s ears pricked forward. “Wait, what shelling?”
“You didn’t hear?” Fiona asked. “They plastered some fly-speck in the Pacific. Fuji? Fiji? Last I heard, we were pulling back and letting ’em keep it.”
Victor started growling at “Fiji”, and her last words drove him into an outright snarl. “Letting them keep it? Cowards!”
Imogene glanced over at him. Their tiny base on Fiji wasn’t more than a line in the sand. Hardly worth Victor’s agitation. “At least it’s not strategic,” she offered. “There’s no shortage of islands down there.”
“It’s the principle of it.” Victor’s frown deepened. “Both my parents died taking that useless rock, and now we’re rolling over and giving it to the blasted Pan-Asians. It’s not right.”
Sympathy panged in Imogene’s heart. When her father died, she’d at least had Josh and their mother. How much worse must things have been for him? She leaned towards him, infusing calm certainty into her voice. “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll take it back. Sometimes to advance, you have to retreat.”
“Maybe so.” The big feline knocked back the remainder of his drink. “But damn if I have to like it.”
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 four, where Imogene boozes it up with the rest of the main cast.
I'll be posting new chapters twice a week, or, for the price of a fancy coffee, you can buy it all now. Not only do you get instant gratification, you also get that warm fuzzy feeling from supporting an independent artist. =^_^=