MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Imogene spent the following day with the demolitions department, learning how best to blow things up in vacuum. Without air to transmit shock waves, a lot of conventional devices were less effective. But by the same token, you could stay much closer to a blast—so long as you accounted for shrapnel and radiation.
She drank it all in, pleased to talk shop with people whose eyes didn’t glaze over. When she finally returned to the barracks, she found it empty. A note scrawled in what might have been Fiona’s handwriting indicated the rest of the squad had left for the recreation deck.
The dusky alleys of the rec-deck were busy as ever. The music in the taproom was less exotic tonight, but the long-eared basset hound still stood behind the bar, polishing a glass while he waited to be of service.
Imogene didn’t see her squadmates, and walked over to check the few booths she couldn’t see from the entrance. Sending one last glance over the taproom, a rust-brown stag waggled his ears at her. Her eyes had slid over him in her search for a group, but now she cringed for not recognizing Bruce.
He sat crossways to the bar, one elbow propped next to a mug of some dark beverage. He smiled as she came over, and gestured to the stool beside him. “Have a good time blowing things up?”
She slid into the offered seat and gave a crooked smile. “Good time, yes, blowing things up, no. I asked, but apparently the neighbors complain about the noise.”
“I bet.” Bruce chuckled.
She glanced around, making sure she hadn’t missed any other squadmates. “Looks like I’m a little late for the party, huh?”
“So it would seem,” he said. “The rest relocated to the arcade upstairs so Alexei and Lauren could settle who was the better tank driver.”
“And yet, you’re still here...”
“Aw, from what I’ve seen of those two, there’ll be rematches till one or the other passes out. I’d rather relax here than watch them fight inside a computer.”
The barman had been hovering nearby, and Imogene ordered a pint of light ale before replying. “So you’re not big on computer games, I take it?”
“They’re okay.” He settled into the stool’s padded backrest. “Just seems like there’s enough fighting to go around without doing it for fun, you know?”
“My mother always said that, but I never quite believed her. Not until the last couple months, anyway.”
“Oh?” Bruce arched his brows.
“I was posted in Turkey. They kept us greenies in the secured areas, but we’d see patrols coming back all shot up, and hear what it was like out away from the base. Makes you think sometimes.”
“It sounds like it.” His smile faded. “If you were feeling that way, why sign up for another hitch?”
Something in the earnest way he asked made Imogene want to tell him the truth, about breaking up with Steve and her apparent uselessness to every other possible employer. At the last moment, she bit the words back and flicked her ears. “Well, it’s a job, and somebody’s got to do it. Also, I like the security; the Armed Forces always take care of their own. Always. That’s not a bad feeling to have these days.
“But what about you?” She raised her eyebrows and glanced over at him. “You can’t have seen much action in Mexico.”
“No, just guarding munitions dumps out in the desert.” His leathery nose wrinkled in distaste. “If I never see another scorpion or cactus, it’ll be too soon. That’s half the reason I put in for Luna. No bugs.”
The corner of her mouth quirked upwards. “There is that. What about the other half?”
“Oh, the usual. Adventure, excitement, the romance of space. I’d always dreamed of going out to the stars, and this is about the only way someone like me is getting off-planet.”
“I can go along with that. My little brother went through the whole Space Rangers phase. He grew out of it, but I guess some must have rubbed off on me.”
“And here we are.” He cast a meaningful look around the taproom. “Two Space Rangers in a cantina on a desolate, airless planetoid. I don’t see any fantastic aliens, but maybe they’ve just stepped out or something. Who says dreams don’t come true?”
Imogene snorted, and they both sipped their drinks in silence as a group of blue-jumpsuited mechanics settled in a few seats over.
“What does he want to do now?” Bruce asked after a time.
Imogene cast him an inquiring glance. “Who?”
“Your brother, now that he’s not going to be a Space Ranger.”
“Oh. He’s doing his compulsory service in the Navy, but after that he’s gonna try and go back to school to be an architect.”
“Sounds nice,” Bruce said. “I always wanted a brother, but all I got were three sisters and a pet dog.”
“They’re overrated. Especially the younger ones.” She flopped one ear to show she didn’t really mean it, and set her empty mug on the bar. “Have you eaten yet? I was going to hit the mess hall, then get some sleep.”
He downed the last of his drink and stood. “Yes, actually. But I’ll come keep you company.”
One level down in the mess hall they were serving sandwiches with egg salad and some rather limp-looking greens.
After collecting her portion, Imogene turned away from the counter and spotted Victor sitting alone with his back to them. His long, fluffy tail wrapped elegantly around his left ankle, and her gaze followed it up to his trim waist and broad shoulders. A warmth crept into her face and she suddenly wished Bruce had stayed in the bar. Then again, maybe some perceived competition would intensify Victor’s interest in her.
She took her tray and sat down across from the big feline. “Mind if we join you?”
Victor blinked, then smiled. “Not at all. And here I was pitying myself as the last one to get his supper.”
Bruce slid in beside Imogene. “Where did you and the Sergeant disappear to anyhow?”
“Practicing with my grenade launcher.” Victor folded his ears. “If you think the gravity screwed up your aim with rifles, you don’t even want to know what it did to grenades.”
“Not if you’re the one I’m trying to hit.”
Both Bruce and Imogene snorted.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Imogene said. “You strike me as the more than slightly competent type.”
His whiskers twitched. “Well, thank you. I guess we’ll see if I can live up to that.”
The pleased look in his golden eyes made Imogene’s heart beat faster and sent a half-dozen replies scrambling towards her tongue. None of them seemed terribly grown-up or intelligent, so she just smiled and turned back to her food. The egg salad was excellent, just zesty enough without becoming hot.
Victor followed her example and munched through his soggy greens before looking up. “Did you hear about the military aid package for Australia?”
Imogene shook her head. “Only that it was hung up in red tape.”
“It went through. They didn’t talk details, but some of our rapid deployment units are already digging in around the big cities.”
Bruce whistled. “We’re sending troops? Not just equipment?”
“That’s what they said. They’re giving the PAF two weeks to withdraw from Australia’s outlying possessions, or we’re gonna kick ’em out.”
“Somebody’s spoiling for a fight.” A worried frown ruffled the fur of Bruce’s forehead. “The media are saying this, or the military?”
Victor shrugged. “It was a government press conference. It’s all over the grid if you want to see for yourself.”
“I will, later.”
Victor shrugged again and took a huge bite from his sandwich.
Imogene poked at her egg salad, finding it suddenly less appetizing. Neither the PAF nor UNA had any real claim on Australia, but both coveted the nation’s resources. It and the Ross Sea oil fields frequently topped lists of potential flashpoints for the next PAF-UNA war.
“This is going to void the Oceania Treaty, isn’t it?” she asked.
Bruce’s muzzle tightened. “If we’ve sent troops, it already has. The only question now is what the PAF plan to do about it.”
* * *
“Grasp it firmly and pull.” Victor looked down at Imogene as he spoke. “But smoothly. Don’t jerk.”
She shifted her grip and moved closer. “I don’t want to hurt you, though.” She glanced up into the powerfully built feline’s golden eyes.
“Don’t worry, you won’t.”
With a nod, she tightened her fingers and pulled. Her ears swung forward in surprise as she felt him sliding towards her, then past, to fall slowly onto the padded floor of the gymnasium.
“Good.” He rolled back up to his paws. “I think you’ve got a feel for the leverage now. Give it another few passes and we’ll try out the next throw.”
Around them, the other members of the squad sparred, relearning the subset of unarmed combat deemed useful on the moon. There wasn’t a great deal of it, but Imogene had never enjoyed hand-to-hand and was struggling.
Of course the fact she was struggling was what had gotten her paired with Victor, so it wasn’t all bad. He moved with all the grace she lacked, and had taken to lunar martial arts like an otter to water. If only this excuse to be close to him hadn’t come coupled with something she was bad at.
“I don’t see why we have to bother with all this,” she said. “It’s not like we’re going to be this close to anyone without our armor and weapons. Shouldn’t we be practicing with them?”
“You never know. And it is good exercise.” He waved Imogene towards him. This time he twisted when she threw him, and somehow managed to pull her down on top of him.
The firmness of his muscles against her sent an electric tingle down her spine, and heat flooded her cheeks.
“Besides, wrestling with you is more fun.” He wiggled his eyebrows.
“Oh?” She flicked her ears at him, lingering a moment longer than she needed to before rolling off of his chest. Gods, he smelled good. Warm sandstone and musk.
His fatigue jacket pulled tight over well defined shoulders and biceps as he pushed up onto his paws. “Yep.” He extended a hand and hoisted her to her hooves. “Now keep your center of balance farther back this time, so I can’t pull you down.”
A few throws later, the instructor broke up the squad’s practice, pairing them off against members of another unit.
Imogene sized up the brown and white rat he picked for her, hoping she wasn’t about to be made into mincemeat. To her relief, the rodent proved almost as incompetent as herself. They traded a clumsy series of textbook grabs and blocks until Imogene fumbled and ended up with her muzzle stuffed in the rodent’s armpit and her wrist pulled high between her shoulder blades.
“Ah!” she yelped. “I think you got me.”
The rat let go instantly, her round ears folding as she scurried back. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
Imogene flexed her arm, wincing as the muscles and joints returned to their preferred ranges. “I’ll live.”
She turned, looking to where Victor’s bout continued. He and his otter opponent were the only ones still fighting. Everyone else stood in a loose circle around them, and Imogene moved in for a better view. The two men grappled, occasionally throwing each other to the mats, but never managing a decisive grip or “kill” worthy blow.
“That’s it! Toss him, Daniel!” Imogene’s opponent called. The otter’s other squadmates started shouting encouragement too, and Imogene added her calls to the tumult. “Go, Victor!”
His eyes darted towards her for a split second, and he grinned before launching himself back at the otter. They tussled, then moved apart. The otter sprang into what looked like a flying tackle, and Victor braced to take the impact of his smaller opponent.
With a move like something out of a bad martial arts vid, the otter twisted into a midair somersault. His paws lashed out, and rather than absorbing the force, Victor flew backwards. His breath went out in an audible whoosh, and when he landed near Imogene’s hooves, he stayed down.
“Well, that’s enough of that,” Sergeant Hendricks said into the sudden silence. “Looks like you cubs all need some practice. Don’t let size fool you like that. Up here it’s technique that counts. Now, let’s get some chow.”
Helping Victor to his paws, Imogene heard him growl something in Spanish. The glares he shot first at the Sergeant then at the otter were all the translation she needed.
“Hey,” she said softly, squeezing his hand. “Nobody wins all the time.”
His ears perked slightly, and his golden eyes met her own. “I know.” He gave her a tired smile. “Thanks.”
The tawny feline returned her squeeze, maintaining their hold as the squad filed out into the brightly lit corridor.
* * *
Last to take her shower again, Imogene emerged to find only Ryan still in the barracks. The diminutive ground squirrel was rearranging his locker, and paid no attention while she dressed and brushed her fur.
Grooming complete, Imogene was about to close her locker when a gleam of silver amid the jumble caught her eye. The corner of her datapad stared back up at her, and she squirmed under its gaze. She didn’t want to try and find something polite to say to her mother, but it would only get harder the longer she put it off.
She sat cross legged on her bunk, back propped against the wall, and opened her datapad’s recording program.
“Hi, Mom. Sorry I didn’t talk to you sooner, things here have been...busy.” She gave an apologetic ear-waggle, then launched into some highlights from training, and getting used to the gravity over the last week.
“...and of course Alexei got the jello all over the front of his shirt. Everyone else had left, so Fiona and I helped him clean it up. She’s the polar bear who’s been up here before and sorta looks out for the rest of us. Most of the people in my unit seem pretty nice, actually. Especially Victor. He’s a corporal.” She substituted his rank for the “puma” she’d been about to say. Best not to bring the cross-species thing up when her mother was already on edge.
“We haven’t had much free time with training and all, but he’s awfully nice, and I think he likes me.” The memory of his hand enfolding hers and his warm scent flooded back, bringing heat into her cheeks and ears. She twitched her ears, making sure the camera couldn’t see the insides where her flush might show.
“We’re really too busy to worry about that sort of thing, though. Lots of training. In fact, I kinda need to go get dinner now before it gets too late. I hope everything’s...good with you. And say hi to Josh for me, if he calls.” She managed to dredge up something close to a happy smile, then ended the recording. She flicked her mother’s address into the recipient box, then sent the message off into the grid.
Both her news feeds and in-box looked to be overflowing, but nothing from Josh or their mother, so rather than deal with the messages she stuffed the datapad back in her locker.
Ryan was still fussing with his locker, rearranging sports and outdoorsman pinups stuck to the inside of the door. He looked up when she approached.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where Victor and the others got off to?” Imogene asked.
He tilted his head to one side, then shook it. “Lauren and some others went to the bar. But I think Victor went off on his own.”
“Hmm, thanks.” Imogene smiled.
“No problem.” He was already turning back to his locker.
Since she had no real idea where to look for Victor, Imogene headed to the bar that had become the squad’s off-duty headquarters. It was standing room only inside, and she edged her way through the crush towards their usual table. About halfway there her ears pricked at the sound of her name. The scrap of conversation came from the direction of the bar, and she changed course to investigate.
“Oh come on! He was just being polite.” Lauren’s voice cut through the bustle of the crowd. “You saw how she couldn’t keep her hands off him. It’s not even like she’s his girlfriend or anything.”
Alexei snorted. “Neither were you, last I checked.”
“Not yet maybe, but I’m not about to let some red-nosed reindeer steal him.”
Imogene bit her lip. She could see Lauren and Alexei alone at the bar, but hung back, using a boisterous group of techs for cover.
Lauren took a long pull from her mug, then thumped it down on the bar. “Besides, you know how important family is to him. He’d never get anything out of a deer like her but manure.”
“So being feline, you must be purr-fect?” Alexei chortled at his own joke.
“Funny, bunny.” Lauren’s ears laid back. “She’s not good enough for him, even if she was a cat. Second-rate tag along material if I ever saw it. She just better stay out of my way.”
Imogene didn’t wait to hear the rabbit’s reply.
Her vision swimming with tears, she pushed to the door and stumbled over the threshold. Outside, a steady stream of pedestrians washed around her while she stared down at the fake sidewalk. Someone bumped into her, and she mumbled an apology, then let the flow of traffic carry her away.
The housing block’s circular layout was perfect for aimless wandering. A never-ending arc of corridor, filled with an equally inexhaustible supply of purposeful, mostly happy people.
Imogene tried not to think as she walked among them, but couldn’t block out the echo of Lauren’s words. The lynx was hardly unbiased, but what if it was true? Luna Corps wasn’t supposed to take second-rate people, but then Imogene knew she’d never been more than passable at anything. What if they just needed warm bodies?
She didn’t know, and there was no way to find out, but the questions nibbled away at her.
Eventually her wanderings brought her to the mess hall. She waited in line, but found she’d lost her appetite. Most of the chicken casserole went in the waste bin, and Imogene went back to the empty barracks. She performed the motions of tooth brushing and hoof cleaning, then crawled into the comforting darkness of her bunk.
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 seven, with romance and other mushy stuff.
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