MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Once again, Imogene had all her personal belongings in a duffel bag slung across her shoulder. But this time, she also wore ninety kilos of armor and toted an assault rifle. The rifle’s power pack and magazines rested in her armored backpack, tucked between the emergency rations and freshly issued demolition supplies.
Her squadmates stood beside her. Some looked decidedly worse for wear, victims of a late night followed by an all-too-early awakening. Around them, the garage buzzed with activity as the convoy prepared for departure. Mountains of crates arrived, then waited to be loaded by hand and forklift into the thirty or so cargo vehicles.
Imogene glanced to her right, where Victor and Lauren stood together. She clenched her teeth, sending pain out from the gap where her molar should be. Slow, dull pain. She’d taken enough meds to ensure that. Yesterday she needed a clear head for their exercise. Today, a little fuzziness was good.
And not just for her jaw.
She looked away from Victor, out over the crowd of infantry and support people. A trio of large personnel carriers nibbled away at them, taking forever since the infantry needed to remove and store their armor before boarding.
Normally she found vehicles cute, but the bus-like, many-wheeled carriers did nothing for her. She made a hasty business of disarmoring when their turn came. Her demolitions pack went in a blast-safe red cubby, and the rest wherever it would fit.
She swung up into the airlock and continued past a refresher into the passenger cabin. She recognized Sergeant Martinez and her squad already seated, and gave a thin smile. She didn’t want company, but somehow having slightly familiar people nearby felt good.
With the back row completely unoccupied, Imogene slid into the farthest right corner. There were plenty of seats, so she left her duffel on the one beside her to discourage potential seatmates. The prospect of making smalltalk was more than she could bear.
It was still night outside as they emerged onto the surface, and would remain so for another five days. The cabin lights dimmed, and pressing her face to the window, she could make out the general shape of the land.
The uneven terrain slid past at a brisk clip, and in the distance, starlight glinted off countless solar panels that covered the crater’s wall.
The cabin grew quiet, most of the others catching up on their interrupted sleep. In the row ahead of her, sergeants Martinez and Hendricks’ heads both nodded. The Dalmatian’s floppy left ear had somehow turned itself inside out, and Imogene suppressed a chuckle.
Her amusement faded as her gaze fell on Victor and Lauren. The felines slept, leaning comfortably against each other’s shoulders.
Imogene frowned and turned back to the darkness outside. She thought she’d at least been in the running, but now she wondered. Had he ever even considered her? His toothy smile floated in her mind’s eye and grew impersonal. He smiled at everyone. Why had she thought she was something special?
The darkness outside held no answers, only an increasingly lofty view of the crater as they climbed. A huddle of prefabricated buildings guarded the narrow pass in the rim mountains, but the line of crawlers didn’t slow. They trundled through the puddles of light cast from the guard station, then descended into the wide valley beyond.
More than an hour had passed since they left, and Imogene wasn’t surprised to hear someone moving down the aisle, followed by the click of the refresher’s door closing. It opened again after a few minutes, and someone slid her duffel aside and sat beside her.
“You don’t mind if I sit here for a bit, do you?” Bruce asked quietly, his soft brown eyes seeking hers. “Everyone else is asleep, and Alexei was starting to snore.”
Imogene glanced forward to where the rabbit lay sprawled into what had been Bruce’s seat. She gave a rueful shake of her head. “At least he’s not travel sick like on the shuttle.”
Bruce grimaced. “That can’t have been fun.”
There was silence for a time before the stag spoke again. “I didn’t see you around last night. Did you meet up with Victor’s bunch?”
“Yeah.” Her mind skittered away from the memory, and she forced a tight smile. “Decided to turn in early.”
An emotion she couldn’t place crept into his eyes. He held her gaze for a long moment before he flicked his ears and snorted. “Wish I’d been as smart. Now I’m dead tired, but if I sleep, that’ll just screw my schedule up even worse.”
Imogene sighed. “I guess sometimes you’re better off accepting things, even if you feel like shit for a while.”
He gave her another long look, then a small smile. “Still, it’s not all bad. They get to sleep, and I get a lovely view.”
His gaze shifted to the starlit landscape out her window, but had it stayed locked with hers just a moment longer than it should? Something tingled in Imogene’s chest, but she shoved it away. Victor had looked at her and smiled too. And Ryan, and Fiona, and that wolf from Sergeant Martinez’s squad she’d never even spoken too. Just being friendly, all of them.
She turned back to the window, wishing her own problems were something a good night’s sleep would cure.
* * *
A wave of thick air hit Imogene’s nose when she stepped out of the carrier into a dimly lit garage. Ozone vied with the rancid odor of low temperature nano-lubricants, while from somewhere nearby came the tearing scream of a power grinder attacking some unfortunate piece of metal.
She rubbed sleep from her eyes, then glanced down at her chronometer and winced. Just after oh-two-hundred of the next day.
The rest of the squad piled out behind her, and Sergeant Hendricks barked for their attention.
“Welcome to the working man’s side of Luna.” He waved towards the garage’s low, soot-smeared ceiling and the dozen crawlers packed in where six would be more comfortable. “Now you’ll understand why anyone with any pull stays at the big bases.”
“Tell me again how long we’re stuck in this sardine can?” Alexei asked.
The Sergeant chuckled. “Not long. This is the Piccolomini N guard station. We’re going somewhere even smaller.” A huge yawn split his muzzle and he blinked. “Anyway, this is where we get off. Make sure you get your armor and weapons.”
Imogene rummaged in the storage compartments, rubbing shoulders with Sergeant Martinez’s troopers, who were also unloading. The hyena sergeant padded up beside Sergeant Hendricks and thumped him on the shoulder. “Have fun out there in the boonies, Rob.”
He shook his head and grinned. “Don’t get too smug. This place isn’t much better.”
“Maybe, maybe not. At least we’ll get some traffic going by to liven things up.”
“True. And you get to sleep in a real bed tonight.”
“That’s the spirit, make me feel guilty.” The hyena yawned, then stuck out her hand. “It’s been good to see you again, Rob. Take care.”
He took her hand and shook it, his tail wagging slowly. “You too, Tanya.”
She gave him one last smile before leading her squad off into the base.
“Right, people.” The Sergeant turned and cast an eye over his subordinates’ weapons and armor. “Double check it’s really all yours and you didn’t forget anything. I’ll go see about our ride out to Pons.”
He returned a few minutes later and jerked his muzzle towards a stack of crates being unloaded from one of the transports. “Haul your gear over there. The pick-up team’s running late, so they’re dumping everything headed for Pons in that pile. Including us.”
Shifting their gear took several trips, and Imogene wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier to just put the armor on, walk to where they wanted it, and take it off again. On the final trip, Victor angled into Imogene’s line of travel, edging them off towards the far side of the pile.
Her chest tightened, but she kept her gaze on the armored leggings she was carrying.
“Imogene.” He tried one of his toothy smiles, with a bit more success than he’d had the other night. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong idea. You’re a great person, and a fine soldier. But like needs to stay with like, you know?”
Imogene’s lips tightened as he mouthed that old saw. Sure, she couldn’t bear him children the way a feline like Lauren could, but did that matter so much? He must think so, unless it was just an excuse to choose the lynx. She fought the urge to frown. If it was an excuse, would that make things better or worse? Either way, she was still inadequate.
When she didn’t answer, Victor shifted uncomfortably. “I hope we can still be friends?”
She met his eyes and screwed her muzzle into a smile. “Yeah.”
He’d never promised her anything; what right did she have to blame him? That’s what her head reasoned, but her heart just wished he’d leave her alone to try and forget. A whiff of his warm sandstone scent reached her, and the knife in her guts twisted. Leave her alone, or wrap her in his arms and tell her he’d changed his mind. That he loved her, and Lauren could go hang herself.
She looked down again before he could see the moisture welling in her eyes. “You’d better get back,” she whispered. “Don’t want to give Lauren the wrong idea, too.”
Victor hesitated, then padded around their pile of crates to join the rest of the squad.
Imogene dropped the armored leggings and let herself slide down beside them. She wrapped her arms around the hollow ache in her middle, closed her eyes, and tried her best to make the world go away.
Several hours passed before a growing clamor brought her back to full wakefulness. An older style four-wheeled freight hauler backed towards them, the strident beeping of its backup alarm rousing everyone and sending them scurrying out of the way. The truck stopped a metre from the stacked crates, power plant idling before the driver shut it down.
A hatch popped open at the front of the vehicle, and a tall brown wolf stepped out. He didn’t bother with the short ladder, just floated to the stained lithcrete. Light gray fatigues hung loosely on his slender frame, and he bore a captain’s rank tabs, along with the crossed yellow arrows of the Strategic Missile Corps.
Right behind him came a female jaguar in a quartermaster’s green jumpsuit. Black markings liberally sprinkled her golden fur, and she moved with a sinuous grace.
Sergeant Hendricks stepped forward and sketched a salute. “Sergeant Robert Hendricks. You must be our ride?” He extended his hand.
The wolf shook it without bothering to return the salute. “Jack Schuld. I’m the XO out at Pons. This is Gwen Flores.” He nodded to the jaguar who had come up beside him. “She’s our quartermaster, and also a pretty decent cook.”
She gave a wide smile at this, and shook the Sergeant’s hand in turn.
Sergeant Hendricks took a step back and glanced around. “Well, it looks like the locals have made themselves scarce, so why don’t we give you a hand with the loading, and then we can get under way?”
Jack snorted. “Assuming we can get the truck started again. That’s why we’re late.” He cast the vehicle a dirty look before opening the double doors to the cargo compartment.
With the whole squad, it didn’t take long to shift the pile of supplies. Some of the larger crates looked daunting, but in the light gravity they all proved manageable with two or three people.
“You might want to stack the last of this so you can sit on it,” Gwen said when they were almost done. “There’s only one free seat up front.”
Imogene grimaced. There wasn’t a connecting door between the cargo and crew compartments, and without an airlock, that meant they’d be stuck in the windowless space until they reached their destination.
“How far is it out to Pons?” she asked.
Gwen shrugged. “About five hours. Why?”
“I’m thinking of putting my armor back on. If we’re going to be bouncing around with the cargo, I want some protection.”
The jaguar nodded. “Probably a good idea. It gets a little rough in places.”
The rest of the squad armored up too, including the Sergeant, who surprised them by passing up the front seat to ride in back with his squad. The rear door closed with an ominous thunk, then the truck lurched forward, carrying them out into the lunar night.
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 thirteen, which I almost forget to post because Wednesday feels like Tuesday.
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. =^_^=