MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Imogene couldn’t tell if any of the survivors were Josh. Furred heads bobbed in the water, too tiny on the bar’s screen to identify. Edging forward, she stared up at the display anyway, gnawing her lip. It couldn’t be Josh’s ship. It just couldn’t.
A hand found her shoulder and Bruce asked, “You said your brother was Navy?”
“Yeah.” She didn’t look away. That dark head on the left—was it a caribou?
“What class of ship?” he persisted.
She folded her ears. What difference did that make? “A destroyer. UNS Spokane.”
“Good.” Bruce patted her shoulder. “He’s good then. That’s a troop transport.”
Imogene blinked at the screen, looking at the ship rather than the survivors. It wasn’t much like the pictures Josh sent. The tension in her chest eased, but it was still all too easy to imagine him in one of those tiny orange life rafts.
The view cut again to the burning city.
“Fucking pandas,” Lauren snarled.
On Imogene’s other side, Victor nodded. “At least now we’ll get to stand up to them. This treaty crap is well and good with a reasonable opponent, but the only thing PAF’ll understand is a boot in the teeth.” Venom laced his tone, and his eyes shone with a hard gleam.
Imogene shifted uncomfortably. Right now she had no sympathy for people who’d go around sinking ships, but the easy way her squadmates demonized the Pan-Asians felt wrong. She couldn’t remember her father well, but she knew being a PAF soldier hadn’t made him a bad person.
Alexei snorted. “You know what the real problem is? We should have kept after them in ’82. Pushed ’em all back to China and built a wall around ’em.”
“Who knows?” Lauren said. “Maybe this time we can finish things ourselves.”
“You think so?” Alexei’s ears pricked forward.
Lauren glanced up to where the city still blazed. “Sure. They keep pushing, it’s all the excuse we need to start another offensive. Crazy fucking pandas.”
Those three words summed up the conversation that followed. Imogene hid behind her ale and didn’t speak. At least in Turkey her squadmates’ animosity had only targeted the rebels trying to kill them, not a whole nation. This open hatred for people they’d never met unnerved her almost as much as the news of war.
After a time, Bruce edged closer and murmured in her ear, “You want to get out of here?” His gaze flicked to Lauren and Alexei. “Unless you’re enjoying the conversation?”
She looked up at him, then over at Victor. The feline hadn’t said much after his first comment, just nodded occasionally when something halfway reasonable broke the flow of vitriol. To leave him here with Lauren rankled. But neither of them were making any romantic headway at the moment, and escaping the anger-filled taproom sounded good.
She nodded to Bruce, and the two of them slipped away into the crowd.
The subdued hum of the courtyard was a shock after the bedlam inside. A wave of cooler air came with it, and she sighed.
“Feels better, doesn’t it?” Bruce took his own deep breath of the fresher air. “Too many people in there getting too worked up over things they can’t control.”
Imogene let her ears perk from their half-fold. “Yeah. Not my idea of fun, anyway.”
“Mine, either.” The stag’s warm brown eyes met hers. “I was thinking about going up to the observatory, but if you’d like company we can do something else.”
She blinked. She’d only been thinking of getting out of the bar, not what doing it with him might imply. Fiona’s remark about him watching her tail whispered through her ears, and she licked suddenly dry lips.
She did like Bruce, as a friend, but did he want more than that? And if he did, was it her responsibility to push him away? As long as she didn’t do anything more than friendly, it was his job to manage whatever expectations he might have. Wasn’t it?
Returning alone to their empty barracks was depressing, and the observatory did sound interesting.
“Sure,” she said. “I’d like to see it before we ship out.”
“All right.” He smiled and led her from the recreation center towards the nearest stairwell. The other pedestrians thinned as they descended, until on the lowest level the white-walled passages were empty. They circled the hub’s ring corridor towards the parking area where Fiona had left the cart on the day they arrived.
A muffled shout echoed over the omnipresent hum of ventilation equipment. Three gray-clad figures came into view a dozen metres down the curving corridor, clustered around a fourth who lay slumped against the wall.
Concern pricked at Imogene, and she hastened her pace.
The three looked up at the clack of her and Bruce’s hooves, then moved off in the other direction.
As they drew closer, the fourth person rose, letting the wall take most of his weight. He turned towards them, and an all-too-familiar face made Imogene’s jaw clench. She and Bruce stopped a length or so short of Jared.
“So—” He paused to wipe blood from the corner of his muzzle. “You came to get your piece of panda too, huh? Come on then!” He shoved off from the wall and raised his fists.
Imogene’s pulse quickened, and she took a step back, settling into a wider stance.
Beside her, Bruce stood his ground. “Are you hurt enough to need help?”
“From the likes of you?” Jared spat, but the red-laced glob fell short and spattered on the white floor. An angry growl escaped him, and he lurched forward. “Just get out of my way.” He pushed around them, limping on his left leg.
Impassive, Bruce watched him out of sight, then flicked his short tail. “Poor bastard.”
“Yeah?” After his performance on the stairs, Imogene couldn’t help thinking he had it coming. Some of that must have colored her voice, because Bruce shot her a sideways look. Her conscience panged, and she cursed silently as they resumed their trek.
Row after row of electric carts greeted them in the dimly-lit parking area. Most everything a soldier needed was within walking distance of their barracks, but for longer trips, the carts came in handy.
Plus they were cute. Beige and about thigh-high, the sociable little things could always be found huddled together outside briefing rooms or office areas, taking comfort in the presence of their kindred while patiently awaiting their owners’ return.
They picked a small four-seater, and Bruce guided it out into the tunnel system.
After the first three junctions, Imogene gave up trying to understand where they were. The tunnels had plenty of signs, but the one for Housing Block H with arrows pointed both directions was too much.
Marked simply “Summit”, the passage Bruce picked settled into a steep spiral. The cart whined in protest, but bore them upwards until at last the tunnel leveled out.
“Well, here we are.” Bruce stopped in a wide spot beside a doorway. “We have to climb the last few stories on our own, I’m afraid.”
She followed him off the cart and into a rather dingy corridor. “We’re at the top of the mountain, then?”
“What’s left of it. They flattened off quite a bit to make room for radars and the defense screen projectors. But the telescope survived. No one takes care of it, but it’s not exactly off limits, either, according to the tech who showed it to me.”
A tickle of nervous excitement crept up Imogene’s spine. The last time she’d done something not strictly allowed was sneaking out of the barracks back in Basic to steal some time alone with Steve.
Ahead, a metal staircase switchbacked crazily up into darkness. Bruce ducked behind the stairs and threw a manual cut-off switch hidden in the shadows. The lights in the stairwell flickered on.
“Remind me to shut that off again when we come down,” he said. “It doesn’t pull much power, but no point drawing attention if we don’t have to.” He gave her a conspiratorial wink and started to climb.
Fourteen flights of stairs later, Imogene was thankful both for the low gravity and her hard hooves. The stairs were the cheap expanded mesh type that quickly lost favor when shoe-loving humans went extinct.
“This is where the imager data comes out.” Bruce stepped through a submarine-style door and waved towards a tangle of computer terminals beneath a larger wall screen. “We can go look out the window at the telescope if you’re into the nuts and bolts, but this is where the exciting stuff happens.”
Imogene glanced around the cramped room with its dirty, off-white walls. “We don’t get to look through the lens or something?”
“Ah, no.” He chuckled. “Not unless you want to suit up and stand around in vacuum. Give me a minute to get the dome open, and we’ll see what we can see.” He settled into a workstation and roused it from its slumber.
Imogene dragged one of the mismatched chairs up on his left and sat. The wall screen snapped to life, showing a black field with fuzzy blobs that resolved themselves into the bright dots of stars.
“There we are.” Bruce leaned forward to the console once more. “Anything in particular you’d like to look at?”
“How about Earth?”
“All right.” His long, brown-furred fingers skittered over the console, and the view began to shift.
Stars drifted from right to left, then an arc of cloud-dappled blue pushed them from sight. The telescope panned over the ocean and came to rest without ever showing land.
“The Pacific must be towards us.” Bruce wrinkled his leathery nose. “Let’s zoom out a bit...”
The view blurred, then cleared again to show the whole planet taken up with white and blue. Only a few scraps of North America and the Far East showed around the lower edge.
Imogene sighed. “Not a good day for Earth-gazing I guess. Unless you like water.”
“Maybe we can manage anyhow.” He sent the view zooming in towards the Gulf of California.
They spent the next half-hour working north, past the half-flooded LA Crater and on to San Francisco. It was too foggy to pick out individual buildings, but the telescope was more than capable of showing the giant structure spanning the bay’s mouth. Monolithic and gray, the Golden Gate Barrier reared up out of the blue waters. Twin to the ruined dam she’d crossed on the train near Gibraltar, this one was still doing its job: holding back time and tide to their 20th-century levels.
Farther north, clouds blanketed the Pacific Northwest, while Asia was just peeking out from the veil of night. Towns and cities twinkled in the dark, strung like glowing beads on the gossamer threads of rivers and coasts.
Then there was Australia. Black, sooty smoke boiled up at several points along the coast, thinning to gray as it swept over the sea. They panned across the outskirts of a burning city, and both Imogene and Bruce fell silent. Vehicles too small to identify crawled through the streets.
Something darted in from the east, and a flash of yellow-white dazzled the camera. When the screen cleared a heartbeat later the vehicles and houses were gone, replaced with billowing dust and smoke.
“Damn.” Bruce hit a key, and the view zoomed back out to the whole planet.
Imogene’s stomach twisted. How many little girls hid down there in basements and fallout shelters, waiting for parents who were never coming back? She swallowed hard. “It’s starting all over again, isn’t it?”
“Maybe not. Australia’s kind of a loophole. It might stay local.” He didn’t sound convinced. “But let’s look at something pretty. You like nebulas? Or there’s Saturn...”
Imogene nodded, trying to think of something hopeful. “Mars? Can we see the colonies from here?”
“Mars is on the far side of its orbit.” He frowned for a moment. “Tell you what, though, we can look at Alpha Centauri. Of course you can’t see the planets, much less any colonies, but the Perseverance should’ve gotten there something like sixty years ago, so maybe there is a colony.”
“You really think they made it?” she asked as he leaned forward to adjust the controls. “I mean, nobody ever heard back from any of the deep space missions.”
“Well, we weren’t exactly listening.” His ears folded. “They would have gotten there while we were still cleaning up from the Unification, and you know how much funding science programs have gotten since then.”
Imogene shuddered. “Gods, that’d be awful. Calling and calling with no answer...”
“Yeah.” Bruce’s lips tightened. “Still, it’s a nice thought there might be at least one continuation of human culture somewhere.”
“Wait, what do you mean? We’re continuing the culture right now, aren’t we?”
“I don’t know.” He sighed, looking up at the pair of bright, golden stars centered in the screen. “Our ancestors were nothing but lab rats a hundred years ago, and kept tightly segregated even afterwards. How much human culture really made it into ours?”
“It had to come from somewhere,” she countered. “You read history, and all the things we do have been done before.”
“I suppose. What bothers me isn’t so much what we kept, but what got lost. There were over thirteen billion people at the last world census. There’s less than three today, even with us repopulating as enthusiastically as we can.”
Imogene shook her head. “That’s true, there’s only so much a smaller group can keep alive. But it goes double for a deep space colony. They only had what? A few thousand?”
“But they prepared for it. We didn’t. Everything we have was either picked up in the military, or force-fed by politicians after the human plague got going. Between that and what the Bureau of Standardization decided to sanitize, who knows what things were really like before the war?”
“I suppose we can’t know.” Which wasn’t altogether bad, to her thinking. People who’d gene-splice a whole race of slaves couldn’t be worth emulating too closely. “Maybe it doesn’t matter. We’re doing okay so far.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Bruce looked down at his hands and sighed. “I guess sometimes I think too much. And there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.”
“Heads down, face forward, eh?” She quoted the infantryman’s maxim.
“Right,” Bruce snorted. “Straight into a minefield.” He glanced at his chronometer. “Anyway, we’d better wrap things up if we want to get any sleep.” He leaned forward and set the telescope tracking back to its rest position.
Imogene rose to her hooves and pushed the chair back to its proper home. “Thanks for bringing me, though. It was fun.”
“Certainly.” He smiled, and a softness crept into his eyes. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
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 nine, with more flirting and some history.
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