MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
BLACK AND WHITE
The metal target swung as the bullet hit, and Imogene allowed herself a grim smile. It might not have fur or yellow eyes, but the target was the right shade of silver-gray. Her imagination could supply the rest.
“Nice shot, Imogene,” Sergeant Hendricks’ voice came over the comm. “Finally hitting your stride, eh?”
“Something like that.” She shifted her aim to the next target, farther up the hillside.
Even without picturing Lauren’s face on the targets, she would have been enjoying this. There was something distinctly satisfying about sending the heavy steel targets swinging with a solid hit, even if she couldn’t hear the distant ring of metal against metal.
She emptied the rest of her magazine with care and determination. They’d been shooting most of the day, and she knew she was improving. Acceptable wasn’t good enough for her. Not anymore.
Imogene reached for a fresh magazine, but found she’d already used her allotment. The others were still shooting, and she retreated from the firing line to observe.
Watching them lay in the dust wasn’t very exciting, and her attention drifted to contemplating the frosty reply message she’d gotten from her mother. All the words seemed encouraging enough on the surface, but the tone and little barbs about being thankful this message “got through” left no doubt her mother wasn’t ready to let their argument go.
Envisioning her mother feeling alone and betrayed set guilt creeping in around the edges of Imogene’s mind, but she refused to let it dig its hooves in. This was her life, not her mother’s, and despite the trouble with Lauren, she wanted to be here.
And if she wanted to stay here, she couldn’t let stress tie her up into knots.
She took a deep, calming breath and turned her gaze first to the barren, monochrome landscape, then up to the star-specked sky. Despite the growing familiarity, it was still the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Earth had waxed full, and now shone as a turquoise marble amid the blackness. The sun had set days ago, and without its glare the other stars burned bright and steady.
Their colors struck her the most. Blues and whites and oranges—they’d never seemed so vivid from Earth. She searched for constellations, but the carpet of glowing pinpricks refused to order itself into any pattern she knew.
“See any you’d like?”
She looked down to find Bruce watching her, and answered him over the same private comm channel. “Maybe. How about that bright yellow one above Earth?”
The stag’s visor turned from her up towards the sky. “Alpha Centauri? All right.”
“I thought Alpha Centauri was a southern star.”
“It is. Santbech is in the moon’s southern hemisphere.”
“Oh.” She frowned up at the stars. That would explain why she couldn’t find any constellations. “Does that mean we can see the Southern Cross?”
“Yep, a bit higher and to the left.” He pointed. “I didn’t know you were interested in astronomy.”
“Only a little. One of the kids in our building had a telescope, and it was a good excuse to goof around on the roof at night.”
“I’ll bet.” Bruce chuckled. “Santbech has a really nice observatory left from before the military took over. You should come check it out with me sometime.”
Attention still lost amid the stars, Imogene nodded. “Sounds like it might be interesting.”
“All right, people, that’s enough for today.” Sergeant Hendricks broke in over the squad channel. “Make sure your rifles are locked down, and let’s get back inside.”
The Sergeant let them go earlier than usual, and while she showered, Imogene planned how she could use the extra time to best advantage with Victor. But he’d vanished by the time she was done, so she joined Ryan and Fiona. They wanted to check out the shops on the second level of the recreation area, which Imogene had been curious about herself.
The first three venders proved disappointing. Mostly snacks or health and grooming supplies, and all standard items. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but to find all the familiar corporate logos on the moon was a let down.
The fourth was better, with racks of decidedly non-regulation clothing, cases of cheap jewelry, and shelf after shelf of what Imogene could only label Tourist Junk. Ryan and Fiona headed straight for the clothes, and Imogene drifted along in their wake.
“How about this one?” Fiona took out a silky, emerald dress and held it up to Imogene. “It’d really bring out your eyes.”
“Yeah?” The thin material felt slick between Imogene’s fingers and picked up the light. “Not very practical, though. It’d be a shame to have something like this and no reason to wear it.”
“Well, I can think of at least one stag who’d like to see you in it.”
Imogene blinked. “Who? Bruce? We’re just friends.”
“Right,” Fiona drawled. “So when he stares at your tail all through target practice, he’s just being friendly?”
“He did?” Imogene’s cheeks grew warm under her fur. “Well, that’s his problem then, not mine.”
“It’s no use,” Ryan said to the white bear. “She’s got her eye on something bigger and with sharper teeth.”
Fiona held the dress up to Imogene again. “Oh? I’m sure Victor’d appreciate it too. It’s such a lovely color for you.”
Imogene blushed harder and her short tail gave an involuntary twitch. She looked down at the dress to cover her embarrassment. It was a nice color, but the midriff baring cut wasn’t her style. Besides, if she was any judge, Victor cared more about whether you could hold up your end of a firefight than what you wore. She hung the garment back on the rack.
“I don’t really want more clothes now. Maybe once we know where we’re posted and get settled in.” She did her best then to hurry the other two along towards the safer shelves of souvenirs.
“Moon cheese!” Ryan squeaked. He grabbed a foil packet with an odious wedge of green cheese pictured on it. “You can’t go wrong with cheese.”
Imogene picked up another packet. “I don’t know. Should something that color be edible?”
“Moon rocks then?” He pointed to a rack of gray stones, each laminated to a small plaque.
Fiona rolled her eyes. “And what do you think we’ve been crawling through outside? You could fill your whole duffel with moon rocks, and the only people who’d care are the ones who had to lift it.”
They continued to browse, Ryan gathering up an armful of odds and ends. Imogene picked out a tablet of stationery with “From Luna, with love” emblazoned across the lower margin. She hadn’t learned how physical mail service worked to and from the moon yet, but Josh would get a kick out of it. Pinning a moon-letter up next to his berth’s porthole might buy her time to find him some more unique space souvenir.
After settling with the cashier, they walked out onto the balcony overlooking the recreation center’s courtyard. The synthetic sky glowed with its perpetual twilight, while below, planters and park benches broke up the pedestrian traffic.
Ryan looked at his chronometer, then at his companions. “Want to see if the rest are at the bar yet?”
Imogene’s ears perked up. Shopping was okay, but the possibility of meeting with Victor was better.
Fiona shrugged and led the way towards the nearest stairway to the courtyard.
When they were about a quarter of the way down, the black and white bulk of a panda appeared at the bottom. Jared glanced up at them, and a grin split his muzzle. Imogene grimaced as he shifted direction to intercept.
He stopped in front of them. “Going somewhere, Fi?”
Fiona growled and tried to go around, but he blocked her again.
“Is that a ‘no’?” He cocked his head and leered.
Fiona crossed her thickly muscled arms over her chest. “Look, how many different ways do you need me to say I’m not interested?”
“What about all those times you sat with me in the mess hall?”
She scoffed. “Once. And that was only because I felt sorry for you.”
Jared’s nostrils flared and his muzzle bunched. “Fucking sorry? For me?”
“I got over it, if that makes you feel better.”
“Yeah?” He rocked forward, thrusting out his jaw. “Keep telling yourself that.”
Imogene planted her fists on her hips and took a step forward. Fiona could probably take care of him if things got physical, but a little intimidation never hurt. Ryan caught on too, and moved up on Fiona’s other side.
Jared’s gaze darted between them, then back to Fiona. “Go on then.” He shifted aside just far enough to clear a narrow passage. “I’d hate to keep you from whatever pathetic fuck you feel sorry for today.”
Fiona snorted and pushed past him, Imogene and Ryan following close behind.
Inside the bar, the dim light and upbeat music flowed over Imogene, soothing her rattled nerves. Alexei waved at them from the far end of the bar, and they walked over to join the lanky white rabbit.
“Well, that’s one,” Imogene said, settling onto the stool next to Alexei. “Any idea where the rest are?”
“Upstairs playing air hockey. Said they’d be down after Bruce and Victor broke their tie.”
Ryan and Fiona sat beside Imogene, and the basset hound barman came to take orders.
The drinks arrived just as a pretty brown rabbit slid into the empty seat between Alexei and the end of the counter. She ordered a beer, then turned to Alexei. “Haven’t seen you around before. New here?”
From the corner of her eye, Imogene saw him give a polite smile.
“A couple of days, yeah.”
“I thought so. Want to come sit with us?” She flicked her eyes towards another table from which a vixen watched intently.
He followed her glance, then looked back. “Maybe some other time.”
“You sure? We’d make it worth your while.” She put a hand on his shoulder, tracing her fingers down to his elbow.
“I bet you would, but I’m waiting for some friends.”
“All right.” She picked up her drink and slipped off the stool. “But if you change your mind...” She wobbled her ears at him, then sidled away.
After giving her a good start, Alexei leaned forward to peer around Imogene. “Hey, Ryan, come sit over here and help keep the bimbos at bay.”
Ryan snickered. “That’d just encourage them to sit on your lap.”
“True.” Alexei cast an appraising eye over the ground squirrel. “You look pretty light. You sit on my lap. That’d keep everyone away.”
Ryan returned his survey, then snickered again. “Nope, never on a first date. Besides, you’ve got knobbly knees.”
He did sit next to Alexei, though, and Imogene tuned out their conversation as it degenerated into a debate over which Tank Commander sim had the best gameplay and graphics.
The bar was filling up, and the crowd more clamorous than usual. There was a sharpness to the atmosphere, an electric current no one quite knew what to do with, and so they laughed and cursed and yelled that little bit louder to compensate.
By the time Victor and the others arrived, there wasn’t an empty seat to be found.
Imogene got up, ostensibly so they could make a tighter group in the noisy crowd, and used the excuse to stand between Lauren and Victor. Lauren’s ears flattened, but Imogene ignored her, turning to Victor instead. The muscular feline’s tawny fur was ruffled, and his gray shirt had come untucked from his waistband.
Forcing her attention back to his face, Imogene arched her brows. “So, did you win? Looks like you worked up quite a sweat.”
“About even, actually.” He gave her a toothy grin. “I think Bruce was ahead by the end.”
Imogene glanced over at the stag, who shrugged.
“You’ll have to wait for me next time.” She mock-frowned up at Victor. “I haven’t played in a while, but I used to be pretty good.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.” Victor glanced towards the entrance then, where angry shouts had broken out over the general buzz.
Probably some minor argument. But rather than dying down, the disturbance multiplied, propagating like wild fire through the crowd. Imogene’s ears folded against the jumbled assault, but she picked out two words: “Australia” and “PAF”.
The taproom’s music cut off, and the seldom-used display screen above the bar flickered to a news broadcast. There was too much crowd noise to hear what the red fox on screen was saying, but the burning buildings behind him didn’t look good.
The image shifted to a map of eastern Australia, with angry arrows in the PAF’s emblematic green and gold stabbing in from the ocean. A few icons appeared and changed color, then the scene cut to a shaky hand-held shot of a UNA Navy vessel, belching black smoke as it sank into blue-green waters.
Imogene’s breath caught. Where in the Pacific had Josh said he was? South somewhere, but she didn’t know where. Her eyes darted over the people splashing in the waves, frantic for her brother’s face.
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 eight. Flirting! Shopping! Oh, yeah, and a war.
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