MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
TO THE VICTOR GO THE SPOILS
Imogene and the others stood in the shelter of their boulder, waiting for orders. Several minutes ticked slowly by before Sergeant Martinez spoke over the main channel.
“We’ve engaged and are pulling back. I think—yes, we’ve got most of Angstrom’s squad and some of the others. Gimme a minute to pull them farther off.”
“Got it.” Sergeant Hendricks waved his unit forward.
In the middle of the pack, Imogene moved with all the skill she could summon, flitting from one shadow to the next. Anticipation of the coming action overrode weariness and the ache in her jaw, leaving her twitching to go.
The mound of excavated rubble loomed ahead, signaling they were close.
The Sergeant halted and peered around the dark gray rock that sheltered him. “I see two by the entrance, plus at least one just inside.” He pulled back slowly and unslung his rifle. “Probably best to rush them. Once we’re inside there’s a stairwell on the left. Three floors. I want Victor, Imogene and Alexei on the bottom. Bruce, Fiona, you’re with me on the main floor along with one of Martinez’s squad. The rest of you, take the top. Clear the place room by room and make sure we’re secure.”
There were affirmatives from Victor and Martinez’s corporal, who detailed one of his troopers to go with the Sergeant.
Sergeant Hendricks cast a quick look over his group. “How are we doing, Martinez?”
It took her a few moments to respond. “We’ve still got them. You better hurry.”
“Right. Get set everybody.” He turned to Victor, who had moved up beside him. “Take the one on the right. If you don’t hit with the first volley, rush ’em anyway.”
Victor nodded and leaned out from his side of the rock, waiting for the Sergeant’s signal.
Crouched behind a boulder of her own, Imogene tensed, instinctively bracing for the crack of weapons fire that, in vacuum, never came. First the Sergeant, then Victor, jerked from the recoil of their rifles.
The Sergeant leapt forward. “Go! Go! Go!”
Imogene bounded after him into the cleared area outside the entrance. Two gray-suited figures lay unmoving in the dust, but more defenders opened fire from inside the tunnel.
First Alexei, then Martinez’s Corporal and two of his troops fell, the gyros in their training backpacks sending them tumbling to the ground to simulate fatal hits. Victor and the Sergeant reached the entrance, and the remaining defenders collapsed under a storm of plastic pellets.
Imogene continued down the unlit tunnel with the rest of their assault force, and flipped on her headlamp when the Sergeant did. In close quarters against an enemy with night scopes and thermal camouflage of their own, clear vision outweighed stealth. They stormed through a vehicle-sized airlock, both its doors jammed open with metal girders, and into a small garage. Their headlamps reflected white where dead glow panels interrupted the dark lithcrete walls and ceiling.
The Sergeant pointed to the chamber’s left side. “Stairwell. Move it, people! I want this place cleared ASAP.”
Shadows from their headlamps danced crazily as the three teams split ways.
With Alexei shot, Victor’s team was down to just him and Imogene. Her heart pounded from more than exertion as she glided down the stairs a pace behind him. She couldn’t ask for a better chance to impress him.
At the bottom, a single corridor led deeper into the mountain. A few widely spaced doors pierced the thick, lithcrete walls.
No sign of hostiles.
When the stairwell door shut behind her, Imogene lost the already weak signal from Sergeant Hendricks’ team. Like the lights and ventilation, the base’s comm repeaters were long dead.
Victor muttered a curse she didn’t catch, but waved her to follow.
At the first doorway, Victor jerked his head, and she bunched up behind him, both pressed against the wall beside the portal. He waited a scant moment to make sure she was ready, then rushed through the door.
Just as they’d practiced, Victor cleared the exposed doorway and dodged left. Right behind him, Imogene went right, making a U-turn around the doorjamb. She scanned her headlamp across the chamber, tracking her rifle with it.
A textbook hostile room entry, wasted on an empty chamber. A mass of cables hanging from the ceiling showed it might have been a computer lab at one point, but now the dingy room had been stripped to the bare walls.
They repeated their performance at the other doorways with similar results. One room held a number of built-in workbenches that warranted a brief search, but like the others, it proved unoccupied.
“Well, this is boring,” Victor said after they cleared the last chamber.
Imogene glanced over at him. Moving in well-oiled concert with him had her feeling very proud and professional. It might be a little repetitive, but that was fine with her. “Yeah?” She chuckled. “I’ll take boring over getting shot at any day.”
“True.” He clicked his tongue and headed back out to the corridor.
Continuing around a corner, two more doorways took off before the passage ended in a lithcrete wall. The left door led to an upwards stairwell, while the other opened into a large room with a double row of columns holding up its low ceiling.
It was deserted too, and they were about to leave when Victor pointed up at one of the support columns. “Say, what’s that?”
A narrow black rod about twenty centimetres long clung to the column, just below the ceiling. Two short wires connected it with another rod on the column’s other side, as well as a small gray box with an antenna.
Imogene let out a low whistle. “That would be a linear shaped charge with a remote detonator.” She glanced at the other columns and chuckled. Several more were similarly equipped. “Looks like someone forgot to pick up their toys. We’ll just have to return them, won’t we?” She reached for the nearest rod.
“Wait!” Victor yelped. “You’re sure they’re safe?”
She pulled the self-adhesive bomb from its place and handed it to him. “Careful, but see the little red bits at the ends?”
He held the black stick like a poisonous snake. “Yeah?”
She let him squirm for a moment, knowing the faceplate would hide her grin. “Real ones don’t have those.”
“Tell me that first next time, huh?” He thrust it towards her.
She took the training mock-up with a chuckle, then started collecting the others. “Even real ones aren’t bad, unless someone decides to set them off while you’re unplugging them.”
He gave an amused snort, then moved to assist. “In that case, I’ll help you disable them. But just this once.”
They stripped the room of explosives. Victor tossed her the last charge, then turned towards the door. “Upstairs and report.” He was all business again.
As they entered the second stairwell, bits of garbled transmissions echoed through Imogene’s helmet. Near the top, it resolved back into understandable speech.
“—are we supposed to do then?” Bruce asked.
“I don’t know,” Fiona growled.
New comm icons lit for both of them, along with a third showing they’d switched from the squad frequency to an open channel.
Victor increased his pace, and Imogene followed him out into the main level.
A dozen metres from the stairwell, Bruce and Fiona stood in the corridor, weapons raised.
At the end of the hall, a lone defender faced them from beside the command center’s doorway. He was unarmed, but clenched something small in his outstretched right hand. Beside him a heavy machine gun and an assault rifle lay entangled with a second, fallen, defender.
Victor stopped beside Fiona and surveyed the situation. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“They shot up the rest of our team, then ran out of ammunition.” Her aim didn’t waver as she answered.
“So why don’t you shoot him?”
“Just try it,” the gloating voice of Jared Chey broke in. “You shoot me, and I’ll blow the whole place to bits.”
Victor’s helmet turned towards Fiona. “What’s he talking about?”
Before she could answer, the panda continued. “See this here?” He gestured broadly with the device he held. “It’s a dead man’s switch. I rigged up the charges under the command center myself. My thumb leaves this button, they go off, and we both lose.”
“I see,” Victor said. “So we have something of a stalemate.”
Jared laughed. “For you, maybe. But my squad is gonna be back any minute now, and then you’re toast.”
“That’s a good point,” Victor said. “But luckily, we have one too. Imogene, show our friend here what we found.”
Grinning widely, she produced a handful of the shaped charges and waggled them back and forth. She’d have liked to see Jared’s expression, but listening to his string of unoriginal profanity was almost as good.
The panda edged towards the command center’s door, but a burst of pellets bounced off the wall beside him, and he froze.
Shifting his aim back onto the panda, Bruce glanced at Victor. “So now what do we do with him?”
“If this was for real, we’d keep him for intelligence—not that he has any—but I say we just let Fiona shoot him.”
“Is that an order, sir?” Fiona asked.
Victor snorted. “Does it need to be?”
Without further comment, the polar bear fired, sending a burst of plastic pellets bouncing off her ex-corporal’s armor.
His training backpack responded to the hits and threw him to the floor, spurring another wave of profanity.
Victor shook his head and turned away. “You’d think he could learn more than those three words.”
The others turned their backs as well, and Fiona gave a derisive grunt. “Words never were his strong suit. Too bad he’s not much good with actions either.”
An inarticulate snarl burst over the comm, and Imogene looked on in shock as Jared took Fiona in a flying tackle. The force of his attack sent them sailing a half-dozen metres down the corridor. Jared came to rest on top, grappling wildly with his larger opponent.
Fiona uttered a wordless cry, then, “Shit! I’m losing pressure!”
Victor cursed and bounded after them. “Get him off of her!”
Right behind him, Imogene and Bruce raced forward. Heart in her throat, Imogene clenched her teeth, oblivious to the pain from her molar. Faceplates weren’t that fragile! Had Fiona’s combat locks failed, letting him open one of her suit seals?
Victor leapt at Jared, knocking him off and rolling them both farther along the corridor.
Unsure whether to help him, or try to aid Fiona, Imogene skidded to a stop beside the fallen polar bear. While Bruce scrabbled to unseal his med-kit, she stared down at the spiderweb of cracks fanning out over Fiona’s supposedly bullet-proof silver faceplate.
“Is she okay?” Victor called.
Imogene tore her gaze away from Fiona to see him pinning Jared face down against the floor.
“I don’t know.” Bruce didn’t look up from his kit. “Her faceplate’s cracked.”
“How the hell’d he manage that?”
“Defective glass? Who knows?” Bruce pulled a canister of emergency sealant from his pack and sprayed it at Fiona’s helmet. The greenish liquid foamed violently for a split second before solidifying into a thick, lumpy coating.
“Talk to me, Fi,” said Bruce. “How’s your pressure?”
“That did it.” Her voice shook. “It’s stable at seventy percent.”
“Good.” Bruce layered on another coat for good measure. “Are you okay, otherwise?”
“I think so.”
With a sigh of relief, Imogene glanced around. Behind them, Jared’s teammate had risen and looked on uncertainly, while from the other direction Sergeant Hendricks bounded towards the altercation.
“What in blazes is going on here?” the Sergeant barked.
Relinquishing his hold on the now unresisting panda, Victor rose. “He jumped Fiona and was wrestling with her. I pulled him off and held him down.”
Sergeant Hendricks turned to Fiona. “You okay, Fiona?”
“Yeah. I can’t see through this green stuff, though.”
“And what about him?” The Sergeant jerked his head at Jared.
“I’m all right,” the panda said sullenly.
“For now, anyway.” The Sergeant’s growl echoed the anger rising in Imogene’s chest. He gestured for Jared to get up, and looked around at the others. “Everyone else is good, I take it? Then we’re done here. Victor, go find the upstairs team and meet us outside. The rest of you, come on.”
Bruce pulled Fiona upright, and with Imogene’s help, guided her along the passage. Imogene split her attention between that and keeping a wary eye on Jared as they headed back to the surface. She wasn’t surprised to see the glare of headlamps coming down the entrance tunnel towards them. Jared’s teammates had doubtless returned from their wild goose chase, and were coming now to recapture the base.
In the lead, Sergeant Hendricks waved to the oncoming lights. “We’ve had an incident inside, and I’m calling off the exercise.”
Imogene braced herself, expecting anything from annoyance to outright hostility from the incoming troops. But that wasn’t what they got.
“It’s a bit late for that, Rob,” Sergeant Martinez said. “You’re all that’s left of it.”
Sergeant Hendricks stopped dead. “Tanya? What are you doing here?”
She stepped into the light from his headlamp. “I thought we might give you a hand, since we ran out of targets outside. Your kid Ryan here is a real natural.” She nodded to the ground squirrel standing beside her.
The Sergeant resumed walking. “You mean you took out a whole squad-and-a-half with just five of you?”
She laughed, falling into step beside him. “I’ll admit, there was some luck involved.” Then her tone turned serious. “What about your ‘incident’? I’m assuming everyone’s okay?”
“Yeah. Cracked faceplate.” The cold anger in his voice made Imogene shiver.
Out on the surface, Sergeant Hendricks called in their situation, then waved everyone to make themselves comfortable while they waited for return transportation.
Other armored figures trickled in from the boulder field, and before long all thirty-two soldiers assembled around the tunnel’s mouth. The members of the different squads formed into distinct clumps, and Imogene wasn’t sorry at all to watch Jared lope to the far side of the clearing and sit with his squadmates.
Fiona heaved a sigh as they sat her down on a rock. “Well, that was fun. Maybe they’ll finally kick him out this time.”
Beside her, the Sergeant growled. “More than that, if I have anything to say about it. With his record, he’s going straight to the Volga.”
“What exactly happened?” Ryan asked.
Fiona sighed again. “Oh, he was the last one left inside and had run out of ammunition, so I shot him. Then he jumped on me...”
The stubby ground squirrel mulled this over before replying. “If he was the last inside, and we got all of them outside, that means we won, right?” He turned to the Sergeant.
Sergeant Hendricks shrugged. “They might call it a draw because of the fight. But yeah, I’d say so.”
Imogene’s spirits perked up, and Victor chuckled. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said “We’ll have to celebrate tonight!”
“Not only that,” the Sergeant added when the agreement to Victor’s suggestion died down. “I got your final cull results this morning.”
Imogene’s ears twitched against her helmet’s padding, trying to lay flat. She’d been doing better, but what about the fight with Lauren? Did disciplinary problems figure into the scoring? Her jaw started throbbing and her middle twisted as the Sergeant continued.
“I didn’t want to tell you before the exercise and let you get cocky,” he said. “But you all passed. We get to stay a unit, and stay on Luna.”
The tension drained from Imogene. She glanced around at her squadmates, then at Victor, and allowed herself a proud smile. Acceptable. She was acceptable.
Fiona’s green smeared helmet bobbed. “Isn’t that kinda fast? When I was new, we took a full month to pass.”
“It is,” the Sergeant said. “I haven’t heard anything official, but I figure with things going sour dirt-side they want as many troops in the field as they can get, and aren’t being picky. Which leads to the next item: Not only did you all pass, we’re being activated. We ship out tomorrow.”
Imogene blinked, then added her own voice to the confused tumble of overlapping cheers and questions.
“Hey, hey,” the Sergeant waved them down. “One at a time. I’ll tell you what I know, and then you can all speculate to your hearts’ content. We’ve been assigned to the security detail at Pons missile base. That’s about six hundred klicks west of here, in the highlands. There’s a supply convoy leaving at oh-dark-thirty tomorrow, and we’re part of the cargo, so don’t celebrate too hard if you want to get any sleep.”
Everyone digested this, then Lauren spoke up. “That’s way behind the lines, so I’m guessing these would be planetary bombardment missiles?”
“Right,” the Sergeant confirmed. “Pons is a PBM installation.”
Fiona groaned. “That means it’s a tin-can out in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t it?”
“Probably.” The Sergeant nodded. “Which brings us to one last point: if you need anything from the PX, you’d better get it tonight. I don’t know what the setup at Pons is, but it’s bound to be a lot worse than here.”
Now it was Ryan’s turn to groan. “A shopping spree, a celebration, and a good night’s sleep? All in the next twelve hours?”
“Ten, actually.” The Sergeant’s tongue-lolling grin carried through into his voice. “I’m sure you’ll manage to fit everything in somehow.”
Out of her armor and back in their barracks, Imogene managed to snag one of the first showers. She hurried through a sketchy wash, intent on making enough time to send a quick message home without missing too much of the revelry that was sure to mark their last night at Santbech.
Her datapad wouldn’t connect to the base computer, and she had to waste time finding a public terminal. Without bothering to check her in-boxes, she recorded a brief message for Josh about her new assignment. When she was done, she hesitated, then tagged on her mother’s address as well. Shutting her out wouldn’t solve anything, and while pretending nothing had happened wasn’t likely to bring her mother around, it was all Imogene could think to try.
She hit send, then put her mother out of her thoughts. Tonight was her chance to solidify things with Victor, and maybe even mend fences a little with Lauren.
Where she’d come from was important, but so was where she was going.
Trotting smartly through the brick-walled passages of the recreation deck, she popped out into the courtyard almost on top of a group of her squadmates.
Victor led the group, padding hip-to-hip with Lauren. Ryan and Alexei trailed behind, but Imogene hardly registered their presence. Her eyes were locked on Lauren—and on the lynx’s arm, encircling Victor’s waist. He leaned into Lauren’s hold, golden arm draped comfortably around her shoulders.
Deep in Imogene’s stomach, something twisted. She blinked and fought to keep her ears from flattening. Her mind ran in tiny circles. He and Lauren—but he’d said—and now...
She couldn’t think, only stare at the two felines.
Time crawled before Victor spoke. “Hey, Imogene.” He tried to give her one of his toothy grins, but didn’t quite manage it. “We were all just heading over to the dance club.” He tilted his head towards the colorful and noisy establishment across the courtyard from their usual haunt.
Her head was spinning too much to form a coherent reply, so she didn’t say anything, just kept staring up at him.
Pressed against his side, Lauren looked on with a self-satisfied smirk.
Victor cleared his throat and plowed onward. “Say, we left Bruce and Fiona back at the bar. Maybe you could go and convince them to join us?”
Dropping her gaze, Imogene nodded. “Right. Maybe.”
He shifted uncomfortably, watching her for another moment before yielding to Lauren’s pull.
Imogene’s vision blurred as the they walked away, and the whole weight of the mountain above squeezed down on her chest.
She might have survived the cull, but apparently she was far from acceptable.
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 twelve. The end of the beginning of the end.
I'll be posting new chapters twice a week, or, for the price of a fancy coffee, you can buy it all now. Not only do you get instant gratification, you also get that warm fuzzy feeling from supporting an independent artist. =^_^=