MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
The barracks door opened with a soft whoosh, rousing Imogene from her sleep. Light from the hallway silhouetted a tall, thin figure briefly before the overhead glow panels snapped on.
“All right, people! Time to rise and shine,” a deep voice barked out. “We’ve got a lot to do today, and some of it may even get done. I want to see each and every one of you up and ready to move inside of five minutes.”
The lithe Dalmatian wearing a sergeant’s uniform strode into the middle of the room.
Already sliding out of her top-level bunk, Imogene’s hooves struck the tiles before he finished speaking. She ducked around him and beat the morning rush on the refreshers. She relinquished the stall to a sleepy-looking but fully dressed Fiona and hurried to don her own uniform.
“Right then.” The Sergeant’s piercing blue eyes followed Alexei as the last member of the squad stumbled out of the refreshers. “I am Sergeant Robert Hendricks. I’ll be in charge of your training, and may end up shipping out with any of you who survive the cull, so you’d better keep on my good side. Now, we’re going over to the north tactical block to get you people geared up.”
Imogene fell into a loose double file with the others and followed the Sergeant into the corridor.
In the row ahead of her, Alexei whispered to Victor, “What’s he mean, survive the cull?”
Victor’s muscular shoulders rippled in a shrug. “People who don’t make the grade get sent dirt-side. You didn’t think they filled the Rad Brigades with volunteers, did you?”
Alexei’s ears flattened, and Imogene’s stomach twisted. People in Rad units usually didn’t live to reenlist. The radioactive wastes along the Volga saw to that.
She cleared her throat. “I thought Luna Corps also ran the penguin stations, and some of the extreme desert units?”
Victor glanced back at her. “Right, but that’s mostly for lunar troops rebuilding muscle tone between deployments up here.” His golden eyes flicked from her hooves to muzzle. “Arctic species like you and Fiona might get picked for penguins, if you’re lucky. But the best bet’s just to make the grade and stay here.”
Imogene’s tail twitched. In the back of her mind she’d been counting on an antarctic posting as a backup, but what Victor said made sense. Command would reserve the safest jobs for the most valuable troops. But it was too late to back out now. She’d just have to make sure she didn’t wash out.
After leaving the housing area, the white-walled corridor seemed endless. Despite the low gravity, or perhaps because of it, Imogene’s legs began to ache. Finally, they passed through a heavy blast door and into the north tactical block. Sergeant Hendricks didn’t slow down, and struck out confidently into the maze-like complex.
Walls of bare lithcrete—lunar dust fused solid with microwaves—arched over the wide passages. Utility and communications conduits festooned the dark gray panels, and the floor was scored by decades of abuse by heavy equipment. Flatbed freight haulers roamed the passages, sometimes forcing Imogene's party aside to let them pass. Side tunnels came every twenty metres, most of them partitioned off with lithcrete around a single vehicle-sized doorway.
Their first destination was a quartermaster’s depot, where the squad received weapons and were measured for pressure-suit armor. From there, they went straight to an indoor firing range. Another squad was still shooting when they arrived, and Sergeant Hendricks used the extra time to drill them on their new weapons.
“...And that’s it for the book,” he concluded his “basic operating procedures for the LAR-M87 rifle” speech with a swish of his tail. “Now some practical advice. In this gravity, your perceived recoil is going to be harsh, even with the rifle’s built-in compensators. You’ll start off firing prone, so you don’t fall over, and it should always be your preferred position. Now, let’s get started.” He led them into one of the storerooms behind the firing line.
Imogene glanced over the racks of loaded magazines and power packs. Without a rifle, the ferro-uranic slugs were harmless, and the same type of power packs served all manner of other devices, so there was no need for special storage or security. All of them were painted an obnoxious shade of day-glow orange, though, probably to discourage accidental theft.
“Everybody, earplugs, then two mags of six-millimetre and a power pack each.” The Sergeant’s voice floated over the crowded room. “Fiona, Ryan, the specialty stuff’s here at the back.”
As the largest member of the squad, Fiona carried their heavy machine gun, while the ground squirrel Ryan toted a sniper rifle. Imogene and the rest had assault rifles—Victor and the Sergeant’s embellished with under-barrel grenade launchers.
The rubber padding of the firing position gave slightly under Imogene as she lay down and snapped her magazine into place. At the far end of the range her target waited: a set of pale blue concentric circles hovering in midair. The effect worked by lasers ionizing small pockets of atmosphere, turning the air itself into a monochrome plasma display. Having bits of plasma floating around made the technology too dangerous for most uses, but it was perfect for targets—never filling with holes or needing to be replaced.
Imogene centered her sights on the innermost glowing ring and squeezed the trigger.
The rifle emitted a low electric whine, drowned out by the crack of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. Both were lost in her surprise as the rifle kicked heavily into her shoulder.
The shot buried itself into the catchment berm with a puff of dust, and the range computer painted a small spinning circle to show where it had passed—a full two metres left of the target.
Imogene winced. The computers kept track of every shot, adding them to the statistics in her file. The same statistics that would determine if she stayed here or ended up in irradiated Russia. She laid her ears back and lined up on the target again. It took a while to learn a new weapon’s quirks. Whoever set the acceptance standards had to have factored that into their equations.
At least she hoped so.
By the time her second magazine ran dry, she could consistently hit within the outermost ring of the target. That counted as a success in her book. The projectiles were optimized for use in vacuum, after all, and had accuracy problems in atmosphere.
She ejected the magazine and power pack, then retreated from the firing line. She stood back to watch Ryan and a few of the others still shooting.
The fuzzy little ground squirrel squeezed off shot after near-perfect shot, seemingly without any effort, and Imogene’s ears went limp with chagrin. Some of it could be chalked up to his higher-powered weapon, but there was no question his skill would keep him safe from the cull.
Two positions over, Victor finished his own shooting and came to join her. He watched Ryan for a moment, then leaned towards Imogene. “And that’s why he gets a marksman’s rifle and we don’t. Must have been born with his eye on the scope and a finger on the trigger.”
“It’s remarkable all right.” She looked up at him. “But you were doing pretty well yourself.”
“A rifle’s a rifle.” He hitched one shoulder, then turned his luminous amber eyes fully onto her. “Besides, I haven’t had much to do but practice lately.”
“Oh? No carousing and chasing women?” She flicked her ears at him playfully.
Victor chuckled. “I’ll admit there was some of that, too. But it’s not much fun when you know you’ll be leaving it all behind. What if you met that special someone dirt-side, then got stuck up here for the next twelve years?”
A trickle of excitement ran up Imogene’s spine. So the handsome corporal was available. “I don’t know, there seem to be some pretty special people up here.”
“I suspect so.” He gave her a wink, then returned his attention to Ryan. “But time enough for that after training. Those PAF cabrones won’t be happy with just Fiji or even Australia. There’s a showdown coming, and it’s our duty to be ready for it.”
“You really think they’ll try to take Australia?” she asked.
“All that coal and uranium? And only a stone’s throw from China? It’s a perfect hedge against any disruption of their lunar operations.”
Imogene nodded. The moon had a number of strategic military and industrial uses, but producing refined fuels for nuclear and antimatter reactions were the largest. If full-on war broke out again, having a dirt-side energy reserve might well tip the balance.
Before she could counter with the mutual aid treaties between the UNA and Australian governments, Sergeant Hendricks barked for attention. Ryan had finished shooting, and formed up with the others in a line.
The Sergeant pulled a datapad from his breast pocket and strode down the line, reading off their evaluations. “Alexei, acceptable—barely. Lauren, acceptable. Fiona, acceptable.”
Imogene chewed the edge of her tongue. Of course Fiona was safe. The polar bear hadn’t just arrived like the rest of them.
The Sergeant moved closer. “Bruce, acceptable. Ryan, very acceptable. Victor, acceptable. Imogene, unacceptable.”
Her heart stopped.
The Dalmatian looked up from his datapad, cool blue eyes meeting hers levelly. “They cut dirtpaws some slack, but that’s slack you gotta pick up. You want to stay here, get your scores out of the gutter.”
Imogene’s chest tightened and her knees went weak. How did she always manage to be found lacking? She jerked her muzzle in a nod she hoped wasn’t too stiff. “Yes, sir.”
He eyed her a moment longer, then rolled the datapad into a cylinder and turned to face the whole squad. “All right, let’s get some grub, then get back at it. Some bureaucrat’s idea of acceptable doesn’t mean jack out in the dust. Exceptional is the only acceptable I know.”
* * *
Imogene’s nerves were still jangling as she moved through the mess hall’s serving line. She skipped over the vile-looking processed ham and heaped her plate with salad, steamed vegetables and rolls, then followed her squadmates to an unoccupied table.
Alexei arched his eyebrows at her as she set down her tray. “A lot of veggies there. You miss the meat bin?”
She glanced at her food. She wasn’t a vegetarian, exactly, but her brother was, and after he converted their mother, Imogene had more or less given meat up too.
Alexei was still eying her, so she shrugged.
His eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those freaks who won’t eat meat because ‘we’re all animals too’ or some rubbish?”
An acidic reply about just how many animals—and what parts—were in the hunk of processed “meat” he was eating rose to her lips, but she bit it back. A table full of meat-eaters wasn’t the place to trot that out. Especially not after the cold shoulders it earned her in Turkey.
She shrugged again. “I just don’t like ham.”
“Good.” The white rabbit stuffed another forkful into his mouth. “Something wrong with a person who won’t eat meat.”
Lauren leaned across the table towards him, lips parting to show pointed teeth. “So you wouldn’t mind eating, say, rabbit?”
Alexei grinned. “Done it. Tastes like chicken.”
Disappointment flitted across Lauren’s silver features, but beside her, Bruce nodded.
“Rabbit’s dry, though,” the stag said. “Now venison, that’s good eating. Not factory food like this stuff.” He poked the slab of pink flesh on his tray. “Back home we had some wild white tails that’d hang out in the woods behind our farm. Best steak I ever had.”
That led to a bragging match between the men about who had eaten the weirdest foods. Glad the focus had shifted off of her, Imogene tucked into her lunch.
Back at the firing range, she maintained her mediocre hit-ratio, but couldn’t improve on it. She spent about half a magazine before one particularly wide miss made her snarl a curse.
Lying on the next firing pad, Ryan looked over and caught her eyes. “Try shifting your left hand forward and aiming lower,” he said in a voice soft enough the others’ earplugs would keep them from overhearing. “The recoil dampers make it ride up more than the ones back home.”
Imogene adjusted her grip and put her next shot into one of the intermediate rings. She glanced back over at Ryan and smiled. “Thanks. Any other tips?”
He shrugged, a shy smile tugging at the corners of his muzzle. “Dunno. You seem kinda tense. Try to loosen up, and don’t fight the recoil. Be ready for it, but not afraid of it.”
“All right, thanks.”
Sergeant Hendricks had barked similar advice at her as he prowled back and forth behind his subordinates, but all he’d done was make her more nervous. Short and fuzzy Ryan reminded her of her brother before he’d put on his growth spurt. It was easy to accept suggestions from him.
She filled her lungs and let the air out slowly, trying to exhale her tension along with it. Relaxing sounded easier than it was, but as the session went on, her shooting did improve.
When the Sergeant read off the scores, her effort earned a gruff, “Better, but not better enough. Keep after it.”
Imogene clenched her teeth and nodded.
From the firing range, Sergeant Hendricks led them back out into the maze of tunnels, headed for their squad’s assigned armory.
Following along, Imogene rubbed her right shoulder. It ached after all day shooting. The gravity was another annoyance. She’d gotten to the point where she’d forget it wasn’t normal, and the moment she did, stumble or drop something. Her squadmates fumbled too, but at least they had better rifle scores to compensate.
Washing out frightened her, but what more could she do to improve? Her mother’s parting words echoed through her mind. Had signing up been a terrible mistake? She struggled to shake off the feeling, reminding herself how exotic and exciting this all should be. It almost worked, especially if she kept her thoughts—and eyes—on Victor.
The armory proved much like the other tunnels, a wide corridor with metal mesh cubicles along either side, each large enough for a squad’s worth of equipment. Two-thirds of the way down the passage, Sergeant Hendricks stopped and swiped his right hand over one of the door locks. It opened to reveal a narrow space, almost completely filled with plastic crates.
The Sergeant shook his black and white spotted head. “Looks like our armor got here ahead of us.”
Victor whistled. “That was fast.”
“One thing you’ll find up here, Luna never sleeps,” said the Sergeant. “Let’s crack ’em open so you can try it on and make sure it fits.”
While Imogene and the others sorted out which box held whose suit, the Sergeant stepped back. “I planned to go over this tomorrow, but I’ll give you the short version now. It’s all pretty similar to the nuke-bio-chem suits you used dirt-side. The computer’s a little more advanced, to control the closed circuit environmental stuff, and they have better armor.”
“How much better?” Victor asked.
“A lot. It’ll stop most small arms, and any stray micro-meteoroids. The low gravity lets the designers really pile it on.”
Imogene found the crate with her serial number scrawled across its label and pulled off the lid.
Like so much else on the Moon, the armor inside was a flat gray, mottled with lighter and darker patches. The only exceptions were the reflective silver faceplate and the blue rank insignia shining proudly upon each shoulder.
She gazed down at the suit, her weariness and regrets sliding away. It looked just like the armor on the recruiting poster. Better even—it was hers. She glanced over at Victor, unpacking his own armor. He wouldn’t look quite as good in it as the poster’s elegant black-furred panther, but again, the fact he was here and real more than made up for that. He looked up, and the grin he shot her was definitely better than the poster’s. She smiled back, then set to work.
With one hand against the wall for balance, she worked her right hoof into the suit’s combined boot-leggings. Her leg slid in easily, but her pants bunched up against the thick padding. She pulled her hoof out and tried again, with similar results.
Beside her, Lauren was having the same problem.
Fiona glanced up from helping Ryan open his crate and lumbered over to them. “Here now, you’ll never get in that way. These are meant to be worn right over the fur. You can keep your underthings since we won’t be suited up long, but the rest’s gotta go.”
Imogene glanced towards the squad’s male contingent. They were all focused on their new armor, none paying the women any special attention. Bruce had already stripped to his boxers, and a flick of his short white tail drew her eyes to his firm, brown-furred thighs. Her ears warmed and she looked away. Not many people survived their compulsory service with modesty intact, but it wasn’t polite to take advantage of the fact.
She shucked out of her own uncooperative pants and stepped into the armored leggings. They fit snugly around her, and she stomped to settle herself into the hoof-style boots. With the light gravity and gentle pressure of the padding, it felt almost like being waist-deep in water.
Lauren stamped her boots and scowled. “I don’t like it. My toes are all squished together.”
“At least you don’t have to stuff your tail into a metal tube.” Victor cast them a woebegone look from where he was engaged in that very task. “I envy you short-tailed girls right about now.”
Fiona snorted, her dark lips pulling back in a grin. “You’re lucky it’s a standard leg-side sheath. I was talking with a lemur from special forces, and he told me about the fancy free floating sheaths they use for extra balance climbing cliffs and stuff. Now, a leg-sheath doesn’t need any padding or to fit tight, since it just follows the leg and your tail’s free to drift around inside. But when you make it a separate appendage it needs padding like the rest of the suit, and then you have to shove your tail down past all that padding...backwards.”
Her three listeners shivered. Imogene hated forcing her short tail through the holes in everyday garments. To stuff a metre or more of caudal appendage through a tiny tube would take true dedication. Or psychosis.
“I’d thought about trying for special forces someday,” Victor said as the last of his tail disappeared into the suit. “Now, though, I don’t know.” He gave another exaggerated shiver.
Imogene chuckled and turned back to her own armor. It wasn’t difficult now she had the knack of it. Torso, arms, gloves, all snapped together with reassuring clicks.
She twisted the helmet into the torso’s collar, and an eerie blue glow illuminated the faceplate with a heads-up display. A flashing icon in the upper left invited her to activate the eye tracking interface that controlled the suit’s comm and other systems. Careful not to blink at it, she left the computer to its own devices.
A few tentative steps showed the suit’s range of motion was actually rather good. With a little practice, she could move comfortably, if not quite with the same dexterity. The added mass helped, bringing her total weight closer to Earth-normal.
And it was dead sexy. She took a dozen steps down the corridor, then turned to watch her squadmates, admiring the matching gray camo and mirror finished faceplates. Knowing she looked just as sleek and deadly made her smile.
Then the others started to take their armor off, and she hurried to do the same.
“Any problems?” The Sergeant glanced around at his subordinates. “No? Let’s get your gear stowed, then. The two front lockers are for me and Corporal Vidal, then I want the rifle team on the right and the specialists on the left.”
Imogene was pleased to see Victor’s front locker was on the left, where her demolitions specialty landed her as well. But Lauren grabbed the locker next to his before she could, leaving her to take one between Lauren and Bruce.
“So.” She turned to Bruce. “I’m demolitions, Victor’s got the grenade launcher, and Ryan’s our sniper. That makes you comms? Or medic?”
“Medic,” the stag confirmed. “Although if you get hit out there, odds are you’ll be dead before I have a chance to patch you up. Probably for the best, too. Blood makes me queasy.” He gave a cheerful wink.
Imogene closed her eyes and grimaced. “Reassuring. You have a great bedside manner.”
“I try.” He flashed her a smile, then turned back to his equipment.
“I would be comms,” Lauren said. “And information services. If you need a computer gimmicked or code cracked, you talk to me.”
“Good to know.” Somehow, Imogene was glad it would be Bruce and not Lauren sewing her back up. The silver feline oozed an arrogant self-confidence Imogene really didn’t want to test. Especially with her own blood and guts in the balance.
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 five, with flirting, guns, and processed ham.
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. =^_^=