MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Back in the barracks, Imogene massaged her calves and let the others have first crack at the showers. How long would it take her muscles to get used to the low gravity’s different demands? Right now some proper weight sounded very tempting, even if it meant being sent dirt-side to get it. Maybe she could ask for an antarctic posting? Doing that before actually failing the cull might keep her out of the Rad Brigades.
She watched her dry squadmates dwindle, replaced with new, slightly damp versions. Soon only she and Victor were left, and the big cat waved her to precede him.
Like the other fluids she’d encountered so far, the water in the shower acted strangely. It felt almost sticky, and flowed sluggishly down her soft brown fur and towards the drain. It seemed to work well enough otherwise, and after letting the spray drizzle over her for a moment, she set to work with shampoo and conditioner.
Several wet minutes later, she squeezed the excess water from her pelt and moved to the full-body drying unit. This was the big brother of the dryers found next to washbasins: a blower with ultraviolet and infrared emitters to quickly dry, and to some extent sanitize, wet fur.
Bruce and Lauren waited in the barracks, but the rest had already left. Imogene ignored them for now and rummaged in her locker for a set of fresh clothing.
“So,” Bruce said, his eyes seeking hers when she finished dressing. “I’m not sure where the others went, but we’re waiting for Victor to finish up before going over to the mess hall. Care to join us?”
“Sounds good.” She ran a brush through her fur a few times, then pulled out her datapad to wait.
An unviewed message from her brother blinked in one corner. She tapped it, and his brown-furred features appeared, backed by the familiar pin-ups and battleship gray wall of his berth.
“Hey, Imogene.” Josh flashed that goofy grin he’d never grown out of. “Congrats on the Luna Corps! Dad always said we were a pair of space cadets. He would have been proud.” He paused, eyes unfocusing just a little before snapping back to the camera. “Things here are pretty much the same. I finally got off the galley crew and into maintenance. Better hours, but I’m gonna miss getting first crack at the leftover deserts.”
Imogene chuckled as his ears drooped dramatically.
“I talked to Mom earlier.” The mirth lurking around his muzzle faded, and Imogene dropped her gaze to avoid meeting his recorded eyes. Leaving her mother’s address off the message she’d sent last night probably hadn’t been very mature, but it certainly felt good at the time. If her mother didn’t approve of her occupation, why should Imogene keep her updated on it?
“She didn’t get your message, so I sent her a copy. I know you and her aren’t seeing eye to eye, and I don’t really agree with her, but I wish you’d try and make nice. She missed you a lot when you went south, and since I had to leave she’s been all alone. It’s...hard for her.”
He ran his tongue over his lips. Imogene bit down on hers. She wasn’t the one being unreasonable, but somehow it was still her job to fix things.
Josh took a deep breath and his expression brightened. “Anyhow, bring me back a moon rock, and take lots of pictures. I never recovered after you told me Space Rangers was only a kid’s vid show. You owe me big, and I intend to collect.” He waggled his ears and leaned forward to end the recording.
Imogene folded the datapad in half and stuffed it under her pillow.
He was right. He was always right about those sorts of things. She glowered at the pale blue pillowcase and the offending device it concealed. Reluctantly, she pulled the datapad out and flipped it open. She glanced over at Bruce and Lauren. The tiny directional speaker would have kept Josh’s message private, but they’d hear anything Imogene recorded.
What would she say, anyway?
Victor emerged from the showers, and she pushed the datapad back under her pillow. A message to her mother shouldn’t be rushed. Or public.
Her eyes drifted to Victor, his fur still damp and clad only in loose-fitting shorts. She’d been too preoccupied to notice when they tried on their armor, but now she admired his muscular back and shoulders. The faint markings on his face were much more pronounced along his spine and flanks. Definitely some leopard or jaguar ancestry there. The dark tip of his tail bobbed hypnotically as he hummed a few off-key fragments from a popular song.
Imogene realized she was staring and jerked her gaze away. It wasn’t like she’d never seen an attractive man shirtless before, but something about the well-built, outgoing feline set butterflies tickling and fluttering deep in her middle. She glanced back and found him fully clothed.
He tamed the fur of his head and face with a few hand swipes, then arched his eyebrows at his squadmates. “Shall we then?”
“We’re waiting on you.” Lauren gave him a solicitous ear flick and pushed off from her bunk.
“So you are.” He grinned and followed her out into the corridor. “And most kind of you to do so.”
Frowning, Imogene hurried after and stretched her stride to come abreast of Victor. Ahead, Lauren did a poor job of adapting a tail-swishing sashay to the low gravity. Imogene stayed by his side, making sure her elbow brushed his whenever someone passing the other way gave her an excuse to edge closer.
No way she was letting the lynx out-flirt her.
Crammed solid with a riot of furry bodies, the mess hall buzzed with conversation. The main dish tonight was suspiciously regular sized and shaped chunks of chicken, covered in gravy and accompanied by mashed potatoes and steamed green vegetables.
Imogene hesitated over the chicken. Alexei wasn’t here to needle her about avoiding it, but after being singled out earlier she didn’t want to draw more attention to herself. She picked up the spatula, pretending indecision about just which piece she wanted.
Behind her in line, Bruce leaned forward. “Don’t think of it as meat,” he murmured. “After all the processing it probably isn’t anyway. One step up from jello.”
Imogene snorted, but shoveled one of the brick-like chicken things onto her tray regardless. Somehow eating it didn’t seem as bad if the stag knew it was rubbish, too. Besides, doing yet another thing that would annoy her mother felt perversely satisfying.
Finding an empty table took some searching, and just as they located one, a group of Armor Corps troops bustled by going the other direction. A raccoon with a sergeant’s tabs knocked into Victor’s elbow. The jostle sent his food skidding to the edge of his tray and about half his water sloshing onto the table.
“Maldita sea!” Victor steadied his meal, then quickly tossed a napkin onto the spreading puddle.
“Sorry there,” the raccoon said. “Just the water, though? Good. Sorry.” He gave a guilty half-wave and hurried to catch up with his friends.
Victor set the tray down and sat with a sigh. Imogene slipped in next to him before Lauren could, leaving the lynx and Bruce to sit across from them.
Lauren took a bite of potatoes, then pricked her ears at Victor. “What did you say when he bumped you? I didn’t quite catch it.”
“Oh.” His whiskers slicked back. “I said ‘gods dammit’.”
“That’s not what it sounded like,” Imogene said. “Was it even Standard?”
“Ah, no. It’s old Spanish.”
“I thought so.” Bruce’s tone held a note of surprised respect. “You speak old Spanish?”
“Not as well as I’d like.” Victor looked down at his napkin and pushed it around the puddle. “But a reasonable amount, yes.”
Imogene cut into her chicken and took a bite. Mealy and empty tasting, but the salty gravy covered that. She swallowed quickly and glanced over at Victor. She hadn’t marked him as the scholarly type, but only egg-heads bothered with the dead languages anymore.
“Why’d you learn it?” she asked.
“It’s a family tradition. My father taught me, his own taught him, and once I have children, I will teach it to them.”
“Oh.” Imogene tried to think of anyone she knew with a similar tradition, but couldn’t. “How does something like that get started?”
Victor shrugged. “My great-grandfather was one of the first transgenics and spent a lot of time in Central America. You know the ancient humans there worshiped jaguars? Even had warrior societies dedicated to them.”
He smoothed the fur on his right cheek, running fingers over the faint spots and rosettes. “Great-grand was a powerful warrior, and met some of the natives’ descendants. Picked up some of their religious ideas. Nothing against Pragmatheism, but I think it’s important to have some connection to the past. Something personal you can pass on to your offspring.”
Imogene nodded, not sure she understood. For a cat to follow some jaguar cult sounded almost narcissistic, even if it was tied in with family.
Across the table, Bruce set down his glass. “How do you figure on having kids anyway? Stuck up here, anyone you’re likely to meet will be career Luna Corps too. Who’d take care of the kids?”
Victor chuckled. “I take it you’re not from a service family. My parents were both active duty Maritime Infantry. There’s extra leave for people with young kids, and a really great creche system. If your performance rating is high enough—and mine and my mate’s will be—you get priority choosing your post between lunar deployments. McMurdo has a really nice family housing area.”
Bruce flicked his ears. “Still, with the rotation schedule here, that’s what? Four months a year with the kids?”
“About. No worse than the submarine branches get,” Victor said.
“Or boarding school,” Lauren offered. “I actually got along better with my parents after going away. Makes the time with them more special.”
Imogene chewed her mealy chicken, trying not to frown while she thought. Children weren’t something she’d really considered. What would a family with Victor be like? A little feline boy from him, and a caribou girl—or maybe just felines. Propagating genetic material didn’t matter much to her, and it obviously meant a lot to Victor. She pictured them together somewhere with grass and maple trees, laughing, playing tag.
Not an unpleasant prospect, but the certainty with which Victor was set on it troubled her a little. That and the importance he put on his hypothetical partner’s performance rating.
“How do they calculate performance ratings?” she asked. “Is it the same as the cull scores?”
Victor nodded. “Pretty much. I think there’s less target practice and more general competency stuff thrown in. Especially if you see combat.”
Which meant she might have half a chance at a decent score. Assuming she didn’t wash out before she could show “general competency”. She swallowed another mouthful of chicken and shook her head. “I just wish the cull had less target practice.”
Victor turned, ears cupping towards her. “Hey, chiquita, don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll make the cut.” He gave her shoulder a gentle punch.
A whiff of his hot sandy musk reached her, and warmth radiated out from where he’d touched her. She smiled up at him, letting her ears cant back just a little. The amber glow in his eyes was all the encouragement to make herself acceptable she could ever need.
* * *
Arched and about ten metres wide, the tunnel from the tactical block up to the surface was long. Very long. The base was under a mountain, but Imogene hadn’t realized just how far under. She and her squadmates marched for what felt like kilometres before a tight corner brought them to the vehicle-sized airlock.
In the lead, Sergeant Hendricks hit the green open button, then turned to face his squad. “All right everybody! Visors down and check your pressure and power readings. There’s hard vacuum on the other side of the lock, and I don’t want to end up scraping anyone’s brains off the inside of their helmets. Check and re-check, and if anything’s not green, let me know.”
Imogene slid her faceplate down, and it locked with a soft click. Her heads-up display showed green: ninety-nine percent power, and suit-pressure fifty millibars above the corridor outside. The suit kept a reserve of compressed air so it could check for proper sealing, and to make up for incidental losses from eating or other bodily functions.
“Any problems?” His tinted visor hid Sergeant Hendricks’ face, but his voice came clear over the comm. “No? Then let’s head out.”
Two full-size surface crawlers could have fit in the airlock, and before they reached the chamber’s far end, the inner door closed behind them. The air recovery pumps hummed, and the pressure dropped. It took a minute or two for the system to reclaim all the air it cared to, then the outer door lumbered open. A puff of dust swirled out with the last dregs of atmosphere, and Imogene’s outside pressure gauge fell to zero.
“Everyone still good? No leaks?” Sergeant Hendricks asked again.
A chorus of affirmatives answered him, and he nodded. “Onward and upward then.”
They passed through an open blast door thicker than Imogene was tall, then around another corner.
The tunnel emerged near the foot of a ridge, high enough to overlook the humpy floor of Santbech Crater. The grayish-white mountains of the crater’s rim rose a dozen kilometres to the east, gleaming in the setting sun. Closer at hand, premature darkness shrouded the landscape. Without atmosphere to scatter the light there was no dusk here, and shadows were sharp-edged and absolute.
Floodlights lit a courtyard around the tunnel mouth, but beyond its berm of rubble, blackness ruled.
Coming to a stop just outside the tunnel, Imogene drank in the stark, alien vista. With no distracting color or foliage, the textures of rock and dust leapt out, drawing her eyes to the distant crater rim. Crags and smaller craters showed sharp details with none of the distortion or haze present on even the clearest Earth days. And above the mountains—her gaze slid upward and her heart skipped a beat. Perfect velvet blackness filled the sky, strewn with more gem-bright stars than she could ever hope to count.
Her mother was wrong. All her own doubts were wrong. The ache in her legs, the twelve-year commitment, everything—it was all worth it to stand here and feel the gravity, and know this was no vid-clip.
A muffled “wow” from Ryan pulled Imogene’s attention down to where the squirrel stood looking north.
She followed his gaze and gasped.
Glowing blue and white, the majestic sweep of Earth sailed just above the jagged horizon. Night shrouded the right half of the sphere, but the left shone as an azure crescent, swirled with milky white clouds.
Lost in the terrible splendor, she couldn’t say if it was minutes or only seconds before the Sergeant’s dry chuckle rattled over the comm.
“Quite the view, huh?” the Dalmatian asked. “Don’t worry; it’ll be there day in and day out, and by the time your deployment’s over you’ll be dying to see an honest blue sky.”
He was just as wrong as her mother. That view could ever get old. Imogene took one last look, then returned her attention to the Sergeant.
“Turn on your headlamps, everybody,” he said. “The trail’s not bad at the start, but you’ll need ’em higher up.” He set out in the long, bounding gait that was most efficient on the moon, where you had the space to use it.
The Sergeant had said they’d take it easy this morning. If this was easy, Imogene didn’t want to see hard. The trail started off well enough, a well-trampled path through the dust, climbing gently into the foothills. Then it entered a murderous switchback up a narrow draw, and dust gave way to tamped gravel and rocks.
Imogene and the others stumbled frequently, which she supposed was the point. The low gravity ruined a lifetime of experience, and the sooner they rebuilt muscle memory, the better.
At last the trail left the ravine and cut cross-slope to a rocky knob. Sergeant Hendricks stopped in the saddle between it and the main ridge. “Take ten, people, and hydrate. You’ll have sweated more than you think.”
The squad spread out. Several comfortable looking boulders littered the knob, and the boot-prints leading to them marked this as a popular rest stop.
Intent on keeping her footing, Imogene hadn’t noticed how high they’d climbed. The puddle of light around the tunnel where they’d started was tiny, and the line of tanks now entering looked like toys. Far away across the uneven floor, the crater walls rose in towering ramparts to dwarf the central peak their squad was climbing.
“Are we going on to the top?” Ryan pointed to where the trail continued upwards.
“Not today,” said the Sergeant. “It gets cliffy up ahead, and I don’t trust you bunch not to trip over your own paws.”
Ryan sighed. “I suppose. I’d love to go higher, though.”
“You’re actually enjoying this?” Lauren asked.
“Sure. The gravity screws with your balance, but it’s useful too: we must be six hundred metres up, and I’m not even winded.”
The lynx snorted. “You squirrels really are nuts.”
“I don’t know,” Alexei cut in. “I haven’t done much climbing, but it might be exciting. Battling to the top and standing on the very summit—”
“Squirrels and rabbits then.”
Imogene ignored them and pulled a tube of water from her armor’s thigh pocket. She snapped it into the coupler below her visor and wrapped her lips around the helmet’s built-in straw. Above, the stars shone bright, and she watched them while the others talked.
When they returned to the valley floor, the Sergeant set them to practice other forms of motion. Running, jumping, belly-crawling—everything from basic training had to be relearned and adapted for their new environment.
They went back inside for lunch, but then suited up again for an afternoon on the outdoor rifle range.
This was more like the ranges Imogene had used dirt-side. Without atmosphere for the laser targets to ionize, rows of old-fashioned steel cut-outs dotted the gray hills, leading away from the firing line.
After collecting their ammunition allotment, the Sergeant gathered them behind the firing positions. “So, you all got the scenic tour this morning. Luna’s beautiful and exotic as anything. And she’s dangerous. Stop and pretend you’re a bullet. There’s no air friction here, not much gravity, nothing to slow you down. What happens if you miss what you’re aimed at?”
He looked around at his subordinates for a moment before Alexei shifted. “You keep on going?”
The Sergeant’s helmet jerked in a nod. “Damn right you keep going. You go a long, long way, and you don’t lose any of your killing power. Ricochets are deadly too, so this range is the one and only place you will fire your weapons outdoors during peacetime. You see that ugly frog-shaped thing with the googly eyes?” He pointed to a large dark-green piece of equipment crouched on a nearby ridge. “That is the little brother of the base defense screen. His name is LIDD—Laser Intercept Deflection or Destruction—and he is your new best friend. Watch.”
The Sergeant raised his rifle and aimed into the black sky.
Imogene looked up. There shouldn’t have been anything to see, but a split second after he squeezed the trigger, a blinding flash burst amid the stars. Imogene blinked, the afterimage blending with the now dimming trail of superheated gas where the bullet had been vaporized.
Sergeant Hendricks lowered his weapon. “Anything going fast in the wrong direction gets zapped. Now take your positions and get busy.”
As the squad fanned out towards the firing line, Alexei’s voice came over the comm. “So if they’ve got something that can shoot down bullets, why don’t they just build one into our suits?”
Victor snorted. “Lasers drink power, never mind the heat buildup and aiming issues. The smallest portables are the size of a house, and cost more than a brigade of tanks.”
“And we all know how many infantry a single tank is worth,” Sergeant Hendricks added with a wry chuckle. “Leave the tactics to the brass and concentrate on your shooting. So far only Ryan and Fiona are scoring well enough to pass the final cut.”
Imogene gritted her teeth at that. Alexei and the others were at least meeting the training goals. If the white rabbit needed to concentrate, she needed a miracle.
Unlike the indoor range, the targets here were at a variety of distances and elevations. That actually made it seem easier to her; each shot was a little puzzle, like finding the best places on a bridge to plant demolitions charges. The spinning rings and lasers inside felt more like an arcade game.
She did pretty well on the closer targets, and even some of the mid-range ones. The armored shoulder of her suit made the recoil easier to handle, and keeping Ryan’s tips on stance and grip in mind helped. She could never keep as good a count in her head as the range computers would, but a little flicker of pride warmed her chest as her hit ratio crept slowly upward.
That flicker guttered and threatened to go out at the end of the session as the Sergeant worked his way down the line to her. His silver faceplate hid any expression as he stopped in front of her.
“Imogene, acceptable. By exactly one point.”
The wash of relief swept away any bitterness at his addendum. She was good enough. And she’d been getting better towards the end. She could do this. She would do this.
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 six, with lasers and cross-species reproduction (but sadly not at the same time).
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. =^_^=