MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
IN LOVE AND WAR
Things were starting to fall together, Imogene thought as she took her armor down from its pegs. A black heart outline around her initials now enlivened her breastplate, centered on the red and yellow field of the squad’s new colors. She’d wanted just the bare initials required by regulations, but with a surname like Haartz, Victor and Alexei wouldn’t let her get away without a heart involved somewhere.
Closer to the armory door, Victor sported the squad’s most complex design, a clawed paw-print reminiscent of the great wild cats. Most of the others fell somewhere in between, with simple geometric patterns dominating. The point was identification, not fashion, so simple really was better.
Imogene slid on the helmet and wriggled her ears to settle them into their recesses, then snapped the helmet into her collar. They had two bouts scheduled in the Infantry Combat Simulation Center this morning, and she was looking forward to both the action, and the chance to boost her scores.
She kept doing better, but as training progressed the minimum standard rose too, keeping her straddling the line between safety and the Volga. Now, with the squad moving on to actual combat sims, she had a chance to prove her true competency.
That was the plan, anyway, but deep in a dark and semi-abandoned part of the base, their first match didn’t start well.
She and Victor got separated from the rest of the squad, then forced into a dead-end corridor. After that, it was only a matter of time before they were overrun and dispatched.
“Well, that could have gone better,” Victor said once the other team had departed.
“Yeah.” Imogene sighed and pushed herself up from the floor. “Sorry if I held you back. I know I’m not as good as some of the others.” Like Lauren. No matter how hard she tried, the lynx stayed that little bit ahead, and Victor always picked her if he had a choice.
“What? Not at all. You’re a fine partner for this sort of thing.” He clapped her on the shoulder, almost sending her to the floor again. “Whoops! There we are.” He reached out to steady her.
They followed the overseer’s directions back to the ready room, where most of the squad waited. The Sergeant was still missing, along with Lauren and Fiona.
Alexei glanced up expectantly. “How are things going inside?”
“Don’t know,” Victor said. “We got cut off and have been playing hide and seek ever since.”
The rabbit grimaced and looked back down at his training rifle.
Moving past him, Imogene and Victor settled in to wait, him stoically, her doing her best not to fidget. She wasn’t sure how much the squad’s overall performance counted towards individual cull scores. If her squadmates still inside managed a win, it had to help at least a little. After her showing so far, she could use all the help she could get.
A good ten minutes passed before the door opened again to admit Fiona, who was followed shortly by Lauren and the Sergeant.
Sergeant Hendricks flipped up his visor, revealing his black and white spotted face. “It’s a draw,” the Dalmatian said. “We were taking too long, so they pulled the plug.”
He waved down a chorus of groans and profanity. “They’ve got our next match waiting at one of the other entrances, so load up on ammo and power packs, then we’re going in again.” He followed his own order, then cast a steely blue gaze over his squad. “Everybody set?”
Imogene nodded along with the others, then snapped her faceplate into place and followed the Sergeant into the maze of ill-lit corridors.
Indoor navigation wasn’t her forte, but they were obviously being taken into a different section of the complex than the first match. Nearly all the lights still worked, and the surroundings developed an industrial flavor with wide, high-ceilinged corridors which wove through a mess of interconnected chambers.
Plastic pellets crunched under Imogene’s boots, evidence of past battles. Her guts clenched at every cross corridor, remembering the ambush that started off the first match.
They entered a large room set up as a field ration assembly line, and the Sergeant came to a halt.
“Okay, our job is to defend the kitchen here. Anyone from the opposing squad gets inside, it’s over.” His reflective visor swept back and forth as he sized up the situation. “Victor, take Fiona and scout back the way we came. See if there’s anything easier to defend than this corridor. Ryan’s with me doing the same over there.” He waved towards a wide archway that connected their room with another. “Don’t take long; I know the other sergeant, and she’s not to be underestimated. The rest of you, secure the room.”
Imogene pushed into the jungle of industrial-green food processing equipment, ducking under tangles of black power cables. She didn’t waste time wondering why the guts of what looked like three different production lines had been crammed into this single chamber. Finding anything that might complicate their mission took priority.
She rounded a huge oven that towered over the room’s far corner and confirmed there were only the two entrances. She was about to report as much, when Alexei broke the silence.
“Hey, there’s a hole over here!”
“Trust a rabbit to find a hole,” Lauren drawled from where she’d taken up position by the main door.
“What sort of hole?” Bruce trotted to where Alexei stood.
“I dunno.” Alexei shrugged his armored shoulders. “It’s a ladder shaft or something. Goes down maybe four metres into another room.”
Imogene joined them and looked down at the rectangular opening near the door they’d entered though. The three of them stared into the darkness until Bruce looked up.
“Well, keep an eye on it until the Sergeant gets back. Then it can be his problem.”
“We’d better check for more of them,” Imogene said. “They’d be easy to miss.”
“Yeah. You cover the archway, I’ll take care of the hole patrol.” Bruce waded into their field ration plant, pausing to check under every conveyor.
Imogene took up position beside the arch and frowned out at the adjoining chamber. The equipment on the other side of the arch was all metalworking tools: lathes, hydraulic presses, other things she couldn’t identify. Several corridors entered the machine shop, and with so much heavy equipment to provide cover it would be hard to defend.
A flash of movement caught her eye. She swung her rifle up, tracking the target, then hesitated. Sergeant Hendricks’ new red and yellow chest patch gleamed under her sights. Her shoulders eased, and she dropped her aim.
“Where’s this hole I heard about?” he asked.
Imogene blinked twice before realizing the Sergeant had probably left his comm set to monitor the main channel even after switching his outgoing transmissions to a private one with Ryan.
“Over here.” Alexei waved from where he stood above the opening.
The Sergeant bounded over to see for himself. “Choke points don’t get much better than that.” He turned on his headlamp to look down. “Keep watching. If anyone comes up, blow ’em away.”
“Looks like that’s the only one,” Bruce said, his survey finished.
“Good enough.” The Sergeant looked over to where Victor and Fiona had also returned. “Find anything useful?” he asked the big cat.
“No. The corridor here is the most defensible. It’s a proper maze farther out.”
“Right. Take Lauren and Imogene and cover it. Bruce, you’ve got the hole. Everyone else, with me. We’re gonna set up out in that machine shop.”
“Got it.” Victor nodded sharply. “Want us to build a barricade?”
The Sergeant cast a glance around the chamber. “Only if there’s loose stuff close. Tanya likes to move fast, and her bunch could get here any minute.”
“All right.” Victor waved Imogene away from the arch, and took up position with her at the kitchen’s narrower entrance. Beside them, Bruce aimed his rifle down the hole, while across the doorway, Lauren crouched low.
Imogene watched the corridor, keeping her eyes and attention moving to stay focused. She had no intention of fouling up this chance to show her mettle.
A helmeted head popped into view, then jerked back.
“Contact!” she called out, tightening her grip on the rifle.
“Hold position,” the Sergeant barked. “Make them come to you.”
“I’ve got something too,” Ryan broke in. “Center corridor. Ducked back out of sight.”
Silence hung for a few tense heartbeats, and Imogene hunkered down to peer around the corner. Victor was tall enough to lean over her and poke his helmet—and rifle—out into the corridor. Opposite them, Lauren mirrored his pose.
Another movement caught Imogene’s attention. This time she didn’t wait to get a clear idea what she was shooting at. First she, then Victor and Lauren opened up with a hail of plastic pellets.
A long rectangular shape slid out across the passage, and Lauren broke off her fire. “Hey! What’s going on?”
“Looks like an old desk,” Victor said.
Imogene stole a better look. “But what are they doing with it?”
“Mierda! Get back!” Victor yelled as the muzzle of a heavy machine gun poked over the upended desk’s middle.
Imogene jerked clear as the corridor filled with a spray of projectiles. It let up, and Victor swung out to return a quick burst. Over the comm, the Sergeant barked orders as his position was pressed hard as well. There was no help coming from that quarter.
She stuck her head out and yanked it back when another barrage of fire rattled past and into the equipment behind them.
“They’re pushing it closer.” She eased her crouch from one knee to the other.
“Great,” Victor drew out the word. “I wish they let us have grenades in here.” He stole another look, then shook his head. “We’ve gotta get around behind them. Fiona and I found another ladder shaft a few corridors over. Hopefully it connects with this one.” He peeked out again to gauge the desk’s approach. “Bruce, get over here and help Lauren slow them down. Imogene, you’re with me.”
Imogene blinked, certain she’d misheard. He wanted her rather than the more competent lynx?
“Wait, who did you say?” Lauren snapped around to face him, her tone echoing Imogene’s confusion.
“You heard me. You and Bruce stay here. Imogene and I go kill them. Clear, Private?”
“Crystal.” Lauren bit the word off like a piece of ice. Her gaze dropped from Victor to Imogene, and while the tinted visor hid her expression, anger radiated from the silver glass.
Imogene’s heart fluttered. He was choosing her over Lauren. Granted, Lauren would have to cross the machine gun’s field of fire to go with Victor, so there was some logic involved, but still! And he’d complimented her after the first match, hadn’t he?
“Good. Come on.” He pulled Imogene up behind him and moved to the hole Bruce had been guarding. Rifle slung over his shoulder, the big feline stepped out into the dark shaft and let himself fall.
Still flushed over what his choosing her implied, Imogene gave him a count of five to get clear, then stepped off after him. She landed lightly four metres below, knees and ankles bent. It was too dark to see, but a quick eye gesture to her suit’s computer fixed that.
The blackness melted away into a gray/green image blending both light amplification and thermal infrared. Victor hadn’t activated his suit’s heat suppression, so she followed the white-hot glow of his backpack.
Skeletons of cable runways choked the passage, grabbing at her elbows and rifle strap. She twisted sideways and scooted deeper into the cramped and twisting labyrinth.
“Blast it!” Victor stopped and scanned rapidly left and right as their passage ended in a junction with two larger tunnels. “Wait, there it is.” He turned left and jogged another dozen metres to stand in the pool of light cast from an opening above.
Coming up beside him, Imogene looked around. “Um, there isn’t a ladder.”
“I noticed.” He turned and looked her up and down. “Climb on my shoulders and I’ll boost you out. Then I can get high enough on the cable rack for you to grab me.”
It wasn’t pretty, and in full gravity wouldn’t have been possible at all, but Imogene managed to hook her arms over the lip of the opening, and with a shove from Victor, scrambled clear. Then it was his turn. He scaled the cable runs until he could reach Imogene’s outstretched hand.
Even at one-sixth gravity, her muscles strained to lift him into reach of the opening. Then he got his free hand on the lip, and all she had to do was hold firm as he pulled himself up and out of the hole.
He rose and unslung his rifle. “At least it was the right shaft. We’ll be right on top of them.”
Imogene followed him out the open doorway. He took several corners in rapid succession, then paused to glance cautiously around the next bend.
“Their corridor butts into this one,” he said to Imogene before activating the squad’s main channel. “Bruce, Lauren, we’re in position. Give them a good burst while we move up, then leave it to us.”
Victor rounded the corner and trotted to where a spray of pellets emerged from a doorway to strike the opposite wall. Imogene stayed close behind him, stopping when he did and waiting the tense seconds for their allies’ covering fire to cease. Then Victor bolted across the doorway, firing as he moved to cover on the other side.
Before he reached it, Imogene slid up where he’d been and leaned out to shoot. She tracked her aim down over the three figures lying prone behind the desk. Taken by surprise, they didn’t have a chance. She let her fire trail off a split second before Victor’s also ceased.
“Got ’em,” the big cat said in satisfaction. “Sarge, do you want us to hold here?”
“No. They’re pushing into the machine shop. See if you can come around and flank them,” the Sergeant’s voice crackled over the comm.
“Right. Bruce, Lauren, over here.”
At the other end of the corridor, a gray-suited figure stepped into view.
“Lauren’s out of it,” Bruce said. He climbed onto the desk and jumped easily over the fallen attackers.
Victor took point as they continued along the passage. He paused at the next doorway, which led into the machine shop. Once more he peeked cautiously around the corner.
“We’re at the door behind the big red drill press,” he reported. “Do we need to circle farther?”
“No,” the Sergeant said. “They’re in with the equipment now, and we’ve pulled back to the arch. Everyone in there is fair game.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Victor waved Imogene and Bruce to follow him. They moved up into the cover of the drill press and stopped, Bruce watching ahead while Imogene and Victor turned to face the other directions.
“How many?” Victor asked.
“Three,” the Sergeant said. “But I don’t know where they are.”
“We’ll see if we can’t flush them out. Stay sharp.” Victor motioned Imogene to continue along the wall, while he and Bruce worked deeper into the machinery.
She crept forward, moving in spurts from cover to cover. Plastic pellets popped and rolled under her boots. Her eyes and aim scanned the way ahead. No sign of movement.
A confused burst of shouting from Bruce and Victor jerked her gaze towards the middle of the chamber. Her pulse spiked. She swept her rifle over the room, but couldn’t see anything in the tangle of equipment. Should she rush in, or hold?
“That’s two down,” Victor said. “Still missing their sergeant.”
“I saw someone moving near the middle,” Bruce said. “Hold where you are, I’ll try and move up on her flank.”
“Got it. Imogene, status?”
Swallowing relief they were both okay, she glanced back the way she’d come. “About halfway along the wall. Haven’t seen anyone.”
“Good,” Victor said. “Stay there, she might break your way. Bruce, talk to me.”
The stag grunted. “Moving forward. I—” Bruce’s comm icon disappeared. Dead, just like Lauren’s and the other casualties.
“Damn it!” Victor growled. “Where is she? Imogene?”
Imogene risked a peek over her cover. “Don’t know. You’re closer.”
“Wait, I see her.” Victor surged from behind a giant lathe, paw-print emblazoned suit gleaming. He made it three steps before the enemy sergeant popped up from concealment and shot him in the chest.
Victor dropped to the floor.
The enemy sergeant ducked back, but too late to conceal her position.
Imogene sprinted forward. Teeth clenched, she dodged around a boxy plasma cutter and sprayed the aisle beyond with plastic pellets.
The enemy sergeant went down and stayed down.
“Exercise complete.” The overseer’s voice flooded Imogene’s helmet. “Sergeant Hendricks’ squad successful, with three members surviving. Kill tallies are...”
Imogene grinned as he listed out the kills. Not only had she bagged the sergeant, but she’d gotten credit for two of the three troopers behind the desk. And she’d survived. All that had to look good on her cull scores. Maybe even good enough to outshine her dismal performance in the first match.
As the overseer concluded, Sergeant Hendricks emerged from the archway’s cover to offer his opposite number a hand up. “Not bad, Tanya, but it looks like I finally got the better of you. Even if it took defender’s advantage and a new squad to do it.”
The fallen sergeant let herself be helped upright before giving him a friendly punch. “You always were lucky,” she said, looking around as the other casualties began rising. “Anyhow, we’d better clear out so they can let the next batch have their go.”
Sergeant Hendricks nodded. He glanced around to be sure everyone was accounted for, then headed towards the exit. Imogene and the others fell into a double file and followed.
Watching the two sergeants in the lead, she decided they must be continuing their conversation on a private channel. Their helmets kept bobbing towards each other at odd intervals, and another round of unprovoked shoulder punching left little else she could think of.
The two squads parted ways after a time, returning to their respective ready rooms.
“Not bad in there,” the Sergeant said, looking over his squad. “Keep it up, and you might even survive the cull.”
Victor’s hand fell on Imogene’s shoulder. “We’ll survive. Especially Imogene here. Three kills, that’s almost half the squad all on your own.”
Heat flashed from Victor’s hand, flooding her chest and surging up into her face. She folded her ears to hide the flush. “Only because you set it up so I was in the right place at the right time.”
“Right,” the Sergeant said. “Not only did we win, but we did it as a unit, and I can tell you all are getting used to moving and fighting in the gravity. Like I said: keep it up and you might earn your moon-boots.”
A silly grin tugged at Imogene’s muzzle. She could do this. She was doing this.
Victor patted her shoulder again, then left her to strip off her training equipment.
Still smiling, Imogene hung her rifle on the rack, then glanced over to where Lauren stood unfastening her sensor-vest.
The lynx’s lips were compressed into a tight line, and her whiskers lay slicked to her cheeks. She bared her teeth in a predatory snarl before Imogene could look away.
No one else seemed to notice Lauren’s sour mood, and Imogene put it out of her mind. She laughed and joked with Victor and the others as they trooped back to the armory.
After a quick lunch came more unarmed combat practice. The first hour or so they spent with one of the instructors, once more going over the required techniques the squad had learned. Imogene had been working hard. She’d never have the natural grace of Victor or their instructor, but she was proud her skills had grown to the point she wasn’t singled out for special remediation.
The more formal portion of the lesson concluded, and the instructor paired them off according to ability for some individual sparring. He named off pairs until only she and Lauren were left.
Imogene winced. They were close in skill, but the one time they’d been paired before, Lauren’s enthusiasm—if not outright enjoyment—left Imogene feeling decidedly outmatched. But that was nearly a week ago, and she’d improved considerably. Now it was time to see if she’d improved enough.
On a blue mat in the far corner of the gym, Imogene and lynx faced off.
Imogene nodded to Lauren from her side of the mat. Lauren just grinned and began circling left. Imogene moved right, letting their distance close as Lauren’s circle tightened.
Just before they came within grappling distance, Lauren flowed forward, right hand darting for Imogene’s wrist. But Imogene was ready. She rebuffed Lauren, and both of them staggered backwards to circle once more.
The lynx’s eyes narrowed, and her grin faltered.
Encouraged, Imogene waited until Lauren shifted her weight for another step, then made a move of her own. She darted in, dropping to one knee to grab Lauren’s left leg just above the silver-fringed paw. She yanked, at the same time driving her shoulder forward into the feline’s hip.
Lauren toppled backwards with an undignified yowl, and came to rest partially pinned under Imogene’s upper body.
Pushing up to her hooves, Imogene offered a hand. Lauren ignored it, rising on her own to resume circling.
They were more evenly matched than Imogene had thought, and a number of indecisive scuffles followed, with hers still the only successful attack.
Lauren’s smile was a thing of the past, her ears pinned back as she surged in once more. Frustrating Lauren’s attempt to gain a hold, Imogene tried a clumsy counter-grab that also failed. As they separated, Lauren took an open handed swipe at Imogene’s face.
She wasn’t expecting that, and couldn’t do anything more than let her head swing loosely under the slap. The blow came as more of a graze, but whether by accident or design Lauren’s claws were out, and left a trail of parallel slashes across the tender flesh of Imogene’s snout.
“Hey!” She dabbed her nose and came away with a smear of blood.
“You play with cats and you might get scratched.” Lauren bared her formidable teeth in an ugly grin. “Maybe you should go back to the North Pole.”
Imogene snorted, her brows lowering as she settled back into a ready stance. Her nose stung, but it wasn’t more than a scratch. Let Lauren make her stupid jokes. Imogene was finally competing at the lynx’s level, and she wouldn’t allow trash talk or a little blood to upset her focus.
Lauren was angry, and angry people made mistakes. If Imogene stayed calm, she could show once and for all she was as good or better than the silver cat.
While not prohibited, striking attacks were discouraged in favor of grappling techniques that were more effective in armor. Since Lauren had started it, Imogene dusted off her memories from Basic. She wasn’t particularly good with strikes, but maybe Lauren wouldn’t be expecting an old-fashioned knuckle sandwich.
They closed again and grappled, this time salting their exchange with blows as well. Imogene twisted away from a grasping hand and managed to unload a punch into Lauren’s lower ribcage. The lynx let out a grunt, but backpedaled when Imogene tried to follow up.
The increasing violence of their bout had drawn the instructor’s attention, but before he could intervene, Imogene saw an opening and dove once more for Lauren’s ankle. This time the lynx knew what was coming, and shifted her weight to bring a knee up solidly under Imogene’s chin.
Something cracked as her jaw slammed shut, and an all-consuming pain was the last thing Imogene knew before falling backward into darkness.
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 ten. Blood! Violence! More flirting!
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