MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
“—the hell do you think you’re doing?” The Sergeant’s words floated into Imogene’s mind. Foggily, she wondered what she’d done wrong this time. Her head hurt, and as she blinked her eyes to clear them, the bright light sent a stab of pain into her skull. The copper taste of blood filled her mouth, and when she coughed, something hard and sharp flew past her lips.
The blurry outline of a brown face blocked out the lights.
“Imogene?” Bruce’s voice sounded almost as fuzzy as he looked.
She blinked, then managed to moan something close to a “Yeah”. Moving her jaw set off another wave of pain, and the sound of blood rushing in her ears drowned everything.
Her vision cleared and she saw the Sergeant, fists on hips and tail thrashing. “Don’t give me that ‘accident’ crap,” he shouted at Lauren. “You’ve been spoiling for this. And you—” He rounded on Victor. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you playing both sides. Make up your gods damned mind and settle things. One more problem, and all three of you go dirt-side so fast you’ll burn up on reentry. You read me?”
Both Victor and Lauren straightened to attention, and gave sharp nods. “Yes, sir.”
Imogene tried to nod too, but Bruce grabbed her head. “Hold still.”
“How is she?” The Sergeant stared down at her, face impassive.
“Pupils look all right, but she spit out part of a tooth.” Bruce didn’t look away from her face. He had really nice eyes, Imogene thought fuzzily. Brown like his fur, but warmer and softer. “Did anyone call the infirmary?” he asked. “She needs to be checked over by someone better than me.”
“Right.” The Sergeant trotted away.
Victor approached and knelt beside her. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Hang in there, chiquita.”
She smiled, hoping she hadn’t spit enough blood to look like a zombie. “Will do.”
Pain pulsed through her head and jaw, but somehow being able to fix her gaze on the faint rosettes dotting his tawny gold cheeks made things seem better.
He stayed there, holding her hand between both of his until the medics slid her onto a stretcher and bore her towards the infirmary.
They couldn’t fix her tooth. The thought throbbed in time with the pain in her jaw as she lounged in one of the infirmary’s private rooms. Something about gravity and calcium chemistry and economics she’d been in too much pain to fully understand. They’d grow her a new one the next time she was dirt-side, but until then there was nothing to be done.
But Victor... He’d followed along until being turned away at the infirmary door. So had Bruce and Fiona, but the memory of Victor’s warm hand and the concern glowing in his amber eyes pushed everything else into the background. Excitement fluttered in her chest every time she thought about what his actions meant. He could have stayed with Lauren in the gym, but he followed her instead. That was almost worth losing a tooth.
She sighed and made a very conscious effort not to clench her jaw. At least it was a molar rather than an incisor. With Victor finally showing his interest, the last thing she wanted was to look like a gap-toothed six-year-old.
They’d kept her in the infirmary after extracting what was left of the tooth, which was probably just as well. Something in the drugs she’d been given sent her out like a light, then woke her up again in the small hours of the morning with no hope of getting back to sleep. At least here she could borrow a datapad and browse the grid without disturbing her barracks mates.
All the news focused on the war in Australia. It wasn’t going well. No single story said as much, but it didn’t take an intel officer to put the hopeful pieces together into a grim picture. Melbourne and Sydney were still in friendly hands, as was most of the interior, but how long the small Australian army and beleaguered UNA reinforcements could hold on was an open question. Not that the state-sponsored media would admit anything more than minor setbacks.
Disgusted, she canceled out of the news feeds to check her in-box. Nothing from her mother, but there was a message from Josh. She’d last heard from him right after the PAF started their offensive last week: safe, and steaming for San Diago.
She tapped the message, and his smiling face filled the screen.
“Hey Mom, and Imogene. Just wanted to let you know the convoy we’re escorting is moving out. We’re headed for Australia, but don’t worry, the escort fleet is huge. No one’s gonna mess with us, and even if they did there’s a lot of more valuable ships to target than a punchy little destroyer. We might not even go all the way; some of the convoy is for New Zealand. I’ll be fine.”
The confidence in his tone warred with the unease in Imogene’s belly. Why couldn’t this all have waited six months? Then Josh would’ve been back in Helsinki and safe.
“They’re running lots of extra damage control and evac drills, but I did get some shore leave in San Diago. A couple of the guys got plastered and went to see the LA Crater, and I sorta tagged along to make sure they didn’t fall in.”
Imogene snorted. Trust straight-laced Josh to end up the designated driver. He was grinning, though, and looked like he’d enjoyed himself.
“I’ll keep you posted if anything changes,” he said. “I love you both.”
The message ended and a box popped up prompting her if she wanted to respond.
Her finger hovered over the reply button. This was the most free time and privacy she was likely to have. But there was no way she’d be able to hide she was in a hospital bed, or the slur from her missing tooth. Her mother was already upset about her joining Luna Corps. How much worse would it be if she found out Imogene had been injured?
She was searching for a positive way to spin the situation when someone stopped outside her room.
Imogene glanced up and nodded at the red vixen in the doorway. Her white smock rustled as she strode in. “Your scans came back okay; all your braincells where they belong. I’m gonna return you to active duty unless you’ve got any other problems?”
“Just an aching head and jaw.”
The fox set a small vial on the bedside table. “Got some pills for that. One every six hours. Read the label, too.” She glanced down at her datapad. “I see you’re scheduled for an outside combat sim today. Try to avoid hard sucking. Ration tubes should be fine, but leave the last couple drops, eh? With things heating up, we need you soldiers out where you belong, not back here with complications.”
Imogene rejoined her squad in time for breakfast, wincing every time her tongue brushed the empty socket where her tooth had been. She considered taking one of the fox’s pills, but the vial listed light-headedness as a possible side effect. She needed to stay sharp for their exercise. With her scores skimming the red line, she couldn’t miss any chance to improve them.
Besides, scrambled eggs were soft.
She’d only taken a small portion, but chewing on one side took forever. Everyone was waiting for her. Their expressions ranged from Fiona’s open sympathy to veiled impatience from Alexei. At the far end of the table, Lauren toyed with her fork, occasionally glancing over at the others.
Finished with the eggs, Imogene downed the last swallow of stingingly acidic orange juice. That was good for another wince, but at least she was done.
On the way to drop off their trays, Sergeant Hendricks edged her off to one side. “I know the medics say you’re fit for duty, but we’ll be fine if you want to sit this one out.”
And let her scores drop even lower? She straightened her shoulders and forced a smile. “I’m good. Just don’t ask me to chew through a wall or anything.”
The Dalmatian’s lip quirked. “Right.” He turned away and waved the rest of the squad to follow him towards the tactical block.
She wasn’t really good. Her head throbbed, and the night’s short, drugged sleep left her off-kilter. But she wasn’t dying, and she’d be damned before missing out on today’s exercise. Lauren wasn’t going to stop her from showing Victor what she could do, or get her sent to the Rad Brigades.
They trooped down the kilometre-long corridor connecting the housing and tactical blocks, the click of claws and hooves echoing off the white-paneled walls. About halfway, a tech on a cart passed in the other direction, and their squad squeezed over to let him by.
As they spread back out, Lauren angled to come abreast of Imogene. The lynx stared at the paws of the people in front of them, and didn’t look up as she spoke. “I’m sorry about your tooth. I didn’t mean to do that.”
Imogene’s ears had flattened at the feline’s approach, and were slow to twitch upwards again. “I can’t say it’ll grow back. I do appreciate your apology, though.” She tried to keep her voice civil, but wasn’t sure how well she did.
Lauren’s yellow slitted eyes flicked up, and she gave a tight smile before drifting back in line.
From one of the tactical block’s wide tunnels, a pair of double doors led into a mid-size briefing room. Thirty or so other soldiers milled about among the folding chairs, but only one stood out to Imogene.
“That’s Jared over there, isn’t it?” she half-asked Fiona.
“Yeah.” The polar bear had turned her back to the room. “Don’t look at him. Maybe he won’t notice us.”
But he was already striding towards them, the dark patches around his eyes giving him a skull-like visage. He stopped about a metre away and aimed his muzzle up at Fiona. “Just can’t stay away from me, can you?”
She ignored him.
“Not even going to deny it? I knew you’d come around.”
Fiona’s jaw tightened, and she finally met the panda’s gaze. “Get lost, Jared.”
“Now that’s more like it!” His black lips pulled back from his teeth. “I hear we’re gonna be on different teams. Too bad, but don’t think I’ll take it easy on you just ’cause we’re friends.”
“We’re not friends. And the day I need you to take it easy on me is the day after I’m dead.”
A call from Jared’s sergeant overrode the panda’s reply. He glanced over his shoulder, then fixed Fiona with his dark eyes. “Just wait till we’re outside. I’ll shoot you full of plastic, then maybe let you see just how easy I can be.” He ran a long, suggestive tongue over his muzzle before turning away.
After Jared left, Sergeant Hendricks came up beside them. “Panda problem?”
“Personal problem,” Fiona said. “It’s under control.”
His pale blue eyes held her for a long moment. “Keep it that way. A level head doesn’t get blown off.” He turned to the rest of his squad. “Now everybody sit down.”
They sat, and shortly a black and white border collie stepped up to the podium.
“Good morning, everyone.” She leaned forward and swept her gaze over the assembled troops. “Today we’re doing exercises in the hills a few klicks southwest of here. An abandoned base there will be defended by sergeants Angstrom and Campbell. Sergeants Hendricks and Martinez will attempt to capture the base’s command center intact. The exact methods of attack and defense will be left to your discretion. The defenders will be equipped with simulated explosives, but let me stress that you are tasked to hold the base, not blow it up.”
The collie frowned at a sergeant in the front row. “If the base is ‘destroyed’ you both lose, so consider it a last resort.”
She looked across the audience. “As you should all have figured out yourselves, being outside makes this more dangerous. Don’t jump off anything more than a few metres high, don’t wander off alone, and most of all, do not engage in physical contact with the other team. You manage to puncture someone’s armor, they’ll be dead inside ninety seconds. And then you’ll be dead ninety seconds after I find you. No fooling around.”
After a pause to emphasize that, she activated the display screen on the wall behind her. “That’s the big picture. Now, let’s get down to the details...”
When the briefing concluded, their place at the back of the room made Imogene’s squad the first out into the corridor. But rather than leading them off to collect their equipment, Sergeant Hendricks lingered to one side. He waited while a double handful of people passed through the door, then stepped forward to accost one of the other sergeants.
“So, Tanya, looks like we’re on the same side now.” His whip-like tail wagged. “Just like old times, huh?”
The muscular hyena turned to face him, and her gray eyes twinkled amidst the mottled-brown fur of her face.
“Just like,” she chuckled.
Sergeant Hendricks grinned and fell in beside her on the way to the armory.
Re-clad in their dull gray armor and bearing training weapons, the two squads arrived at the north garage. By far the largest chamber Imogene had yet seen, the titanic hall stretched away in both directions for hundreds of metres, while the walls rose at least four stories to a vaulted ceiling. Armored vehicles and mounds of crates littered the wide, lithcrete floor.
“All right, people,” Sergeant Hendricks called over the distant rumble of idling vehicles. “We’re supposed to give them half an hour’s head start. Make yourselves comfortable.” He waved towards a stack of metal crates beside the wall.
Sergeant Martinez nodded to her own troops and took a seat beside Sergeant Hendricks. Imogene climbed a little higher, settling behind the sergeants and next to Victor.
“Have you got any special plans, or do we just try and rush them?” Sergeant Martinez glanced over at Sergeant Hendricks.
He sighed, reaching up to scratch his nose through the open faceplate. “That base is a tricky one. Just the single entrance, and plenty of cover around it. Do you know the other sergeants? Are they likely to hole up inside or try for something fancy?”
“I don’t know Campbell, but Angstrom’s aggressive. Definitely not one to stay inside if he can help it.”
“Hmm.” Sergeant Hendricks gazed up at the arched ceiling. “Do you think we could lure him out? Away from the base?”
She nodded slowly. “Maybe. What’s your plan?”
The Dalmatian took a moment to collect his thoughts before answering. “If we can get him chasing after four or five of us, the odds inside would be that much better.”
“It’s worth a try. But you’d need to make sure he thinks he’s chasing all of us.”
“So we send decoys from both squads and make sure they show off their chest patches. Better pick people who know how to move well, too. Make it look like there’s more of them.”
Imogene licked her lips. That probably counted her out of the decoy squad. Just as well. Decoys didn’t have a high survival ratio.
Sergeant Martinez nodded faster as the plan took shape. “What about the main force? They’ll have to be someplace out of sight, but close enough to move in fast.”
“Yeah.” He chewed his lower lip. “I don’t know that valley very well. Is there enough cover for us to hide while they go by?”
The hyena shook her head. “There’s plenty for fighting, but not to hide a whole squad. It’s pretty narrow.”
Higher up the stack of crates, Ryan cleared his throat. Everyone from both squads turned to look at him, and Imogene wondered what the ground squirrel sniper had in mind.
Looking suddenly nervous, Ryan spoke, “This is up in the mountains, past where we stopped the other day, right?”
Sergeant Hendricks nodded. “More or less. There’s a little valley that comes in from the south. The abandoned base is in the foothills on the west side.”
“So maybe we could send the decoys up the valley, like you said, but the rest come in over the ridge? The hills really didn’t look too bad.”
The Sergeant’s quizzical look gave way to a thoughtful frown. “That just might work. I can’t remember anyone ever hiking in over the mountain. They won’t be expecting us to put in that much leg work on a training mission.”
Sergeant Martinez tilted her head to the side. “That’s gonna take a while, up and over whatever ridges and hills...”
A wicked smile spread over Sergeant Hendricks’ muzzle. “Let ’em wait for us. Get bored, nervous.” He rose to his paws. “Still, you’re right. I’ll see if I can’t scare up some transport a little early.” And with that, he was off, moving in graceful bounds between the parked surface crawlers.
He returned, followed by a boxy Paladin Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The squatty gray IFVs were as common up here as moon rocks, and carried a squad of infantry, along with three crew in a raised front cabin.
Sergeant Martinez joined him by the crawler and looked over their two squads. “I’ll take the decoy party. Fast and light is my game.”
“Right,” Sergeant Hendricks said. “Take two more of yours, and I’ll give you my two quickest. Ryan, Lauren, you’re with her. The rest of you, mount up.” He jerked a thumb towards the waiting crawler, then turned back to Sergeant Martinez. “We’re gonna have a lot farther to go, so you can take your time. Give us till thirteen hundred hours, then go for it.”
“I’ll be there.” She grinned, then made a quick pick for the rest of her team.
The remainder piled into the crawler with Imogene and her squadmates. It was a tight fit. Even with two of them up in the vacant gunner and navigator’s seats, that left nine in a space barely large enough for eight.
Sergeant Hendricks climbed in last and pushed his way to the front of the cabin. He stuck his head up into the crew compartment to tell the driver exactly where to go, then hunkered down for the trip out.
The ride was short and smooth, until the increasingly rough last minute or so. With one final lurch, the vehicle came to a stop.
The thick lunar night greeted Imogene as she stepped out of the airlock. She engaged her suit’s night vision and glanced around. They were parked in a steep ravine partway up a ridge, looking out and down over the floor of Santbech Crater.
She shuddered and moved to join the others. The hillside wasn’t unreasonable for walking, but she’d never have considered taking a vehicle up it.
Behind her, the Sergeant emerged from the crawler. “Straight up this ravine for now. And passive night vision only, unless we get into deep shadow.”
The stars burned bright, and Earth’s disc floated gracefully, casting enough light for the climbers’ needs. They struggled perhaps half a kilometre upwards before the ravine brought them onto a subsidiary ridge. A loose rock shifted under Imogene’s boot as she reached the crest, and she fell to hands and knees with a muffled yelp.
The Sergeant looked back, but didn’t comment. Everyone from his squad had fallen at least once already. He and the people from Sergeant Martinez’s unit fared better, but Imogene and her companions’ scant two weeks of training hadn’t prepared them for this.
Battling upright, Imogene trudged forward. The fall had jarred her head, setting her jaw throbbing again.
Even being careful to step in the boot prints of those ahead, her footing wasn’t certain. The low gravity and lack of atmosphere played strange tricks with traction and balance. Luckily, the main spine of the mountains wasn’t much farther, and she made it without falling again.
They’d aimed for a low notch in the otherwise craggy ridge line, and the Sergeant signaled a halt when they reached it. “We’re making better time than I thought. Victor, come ahead with me. I want to see if we can get any closer without making targets of ourselves.”
The big cat joined him, and they slipped over the summit and out of sight.
Imogene sagged to the ground with a sigh. Hopefully they’d get a chance to rest before assaulting the base.
The Sergeant was back within five minutes and waved everyone forwards. “Stay close to the outcrop here, and get down fast. Don’t want to get sky-lined.”
Mindful of his warning, Imogene pushed her weary legs to hurry through the exposed stretch. Reaching better cover, she paused and looked downslope.
The valley cut through the mountains, a few hundred metres wide and choked with rubble. Water had played no part in its formation, and the humpy, uneven floor looked wrong. Unnatural. The ghostly green light of her night vision made it hard to pick out details, but a thin ribbon of road snaked along the valley’s western side. It came to an end about two klicks south of their position, where a large pile of rubble marked the entrance to an underground facility.
“Come on, no time for sightseeing,” the Sergeant’s deep voice filled her helmet.
With a guilty start, Imogene jerked her attention back to the task at hand.
The hillside grew shallower, and they made good time over the powdered dust. The Sergeant took them north, away from their target—and possible sentries—until they reached the cover of the valley floor. Then they worked south again through a field of massive boulders and countless small craters before stopping in the shadow of a house-size rock.
Victor, who’d been bringing up the rear, came into view and gave the Sergeant a nod.
Returning it, the Sergeant swept his reflective faceplate over his troops. “We’re getting close. They’re bound to have sentries out, so we’ll hole up here and wait for Martinez to try her bit. Break out your rations if you want; we might have a busy afternoon.”
Imogene settled down with her back to the boulder and pulled out a tube of EVA rations. The thick yellow fluid had an odd metallic flavor, but it was laced with stimulants as well as nutrients, and right now she needed both.
No one spoke as they made their liquid lunch, and the silence continued even after everyone finished.
They might be talking on private channels, Imogene supposed, but no one had the gumption to make a general comment until Alexei spoke up. “Why’d they abandon this base anyway? It’s so close, you’d think someone would have a use for it.”
“Radiation,” one of Sergeant Martinez’s troops answered. “It was a test station for some new kind of reactor that didn’t work out. Now the whole place is too hot to handle.”
How Alexei managed to cram so little enthusiasm into one syllable, Imogene didn’t know. Not that she blamed him. Their suits were supposed to be shielded, but learning just how well didn’t sound appealing.
“It’s not much,” Sergeant Hendricks cut in. “No worse than you get from the sunlight up here.”
“True indeed,” Martinez’s trooper agreed. “But there’s not much point in a base where you can’t take off your suit, is there?”
Imogene chuckled along with the others at that, and settled back against the boulder.
Just then, Sergeant Martinez’s voice came in over the comm. “Hendricks? Are you receiving? We’re almost in position.”
“Loud and clear.” He hoisted himself upright. “We’re about three-quarters of a klick north, and ready when you are. Let us know what’s going on. We’re out of visual.”
“Okay,” Sergeant Martinez said. “Moving up now.”
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 eleven. More blood and flirting.
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