MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
It was well past lunchtime when Jack called over the comm to announce they had finally arrived. They spent a few more minutes navigating through the base’s access tunnel and airlock, then the truck ground to a halt and someone outside swung open the cargo compartment’s doors.
Following the others out, Imogene paused to look around.
This chamber reminded her of the garage at Santbech, only in miniature. The vaulted ceiling rose a modest two stories, and the available floorspace was almost completely filled by the truck and two Paladin Infantry Fighting Vehicles. A handful of utility buggies nestled by their charging stations along one wall, while a wide doorway led into another chamber, choked with crates and pieces of disassembled machinery.
Standing by the tailgate, Gwen cleared her throat. “I’m afraid our logistics detail consists of me, plus anyone off-duty who doesn’t manage to hide fast enough.” She gave a wry smile. “The squads you’re replacing are gonna be busy packing up, so if you could give me a hand unloading it would be great.”
“Certainly.” The Sergeant waved his troops to get started, and climbed back into the truck himself. He hefted a box of canned pears and handed it down to Gwen. “You said squads we’re replacing? As in plural?”
“Yeah.” She passed the crate on to Imogene. “They’re getting shifted up to the front, along with one of the Paladins. At least that’s what the colonel said.”
“Huh. Should keep us busy if they want to run full patrols.”
“I suppose so.” Gwen took another box and frowned. “I’d only thought as far as having eleven fewer people to cook for.”
He gave her a quick grin. “We’ll manage. Infantry’s always good at that.”
Handing boxes along the line, Imogene wasn’t so sure. If they were stripping seasoned troops from rear positions and replacing them with green recruits, there had to be a reason. And probably not one that would help her sleep at night.
They had most of the supplies unloaded when a wave of new people flooded into the garage. Most of them were armor-clad infantry, with a few drivers and techs mixed in.
The two sergeants pulled Sergeant Hendricks away for a few quick words, while their troops shuffled about noisily. Some of them started climbing into one Paladin, only to be called back out and directed to the other.
It was chaos, and after a very disjointed night’s sleep, Imogene felt the strong urge to crawl behind their neatly stacked crates and wait for it all to go away.
In the confusion, Jack reappeared from wherever he had gotten to. After a quick look in the back of the truck, he yelled for attention and waved the rest of the departing infantry inside.
The sergeants concluded their conference and split up to rejoin their squads.
Jack swung the truck’s cargo doors shut, then motioned Sergeant Hendricks’ group to follow him. He led them from the garage into a white-walled corridor, then stopped beside the first pair of doorways.
“These are our armory and pressure suit storage,” he said. “If you want, you can change out of your armor before I show you the base.”
Sergeant Hendricks unsnapped his helmet. “Sounds good to me.”
In the armory, Imogene shed her armor and hung it in a locker near the door. Two lockers down, Bruce did likewise, while on the room’s other side Victor and Lauren laid claim to adjoining cubbies.
Imogene looked away and sighed. Some detached, logical part of her was starting to think they might make a good match. But that didn’t mean she had to like it.
Gear safely stowed, they followed Jack to a cross corridor.
“Sleeping quarters.” He nodded along the short side passages. “You infantry get the left branch pretty much to yourselves. Us missile minders are on the right.”
Alexei pushed forward so he could see along the corridors and whistled. “Boy, they weren’t kidding when they said this place was a tin-can! If this is all of the housing, anyways...”
The corner of Jack’s muzzle quirked upwards. “Yep. In fact, if you stand right here where the corridors meet, you can see just about everything. Let me run you along the main corridor, then you can get settled in.”
Following, they passed a communal refresher, a combined lounge/mess hall, and some utility areas. A security door blocked the corridor’s far end, and Jack stopped in front of it.
“The command center’s through here. Just a couple computer terminals, but it’s why the rest of this exists.” He waved to include the base and its surroundings. “Colonel Hasara’s on shift inside, but I imagine you’ll see her at dinner.” He trailed off, then gave a swish with his tail. “Anyhow, that’s about everything. I’ll let you all get unpacked.”
Back in the housing corridor, Fiona pushed open the first door and stepped inside. “Cozy little place, isn’t it?” she asked, tossing her duffel onto one of the beds.
Imogene looked over Ryan’s head into the small chamber. It was cozy, all right. Two double bunks, four lockers, and about two square metres of floorspace. She set her duffel on the other bunk. As the only two unattached females, it made sense for them to share a room.
Later, they chatted in the lounge with Jack and some of the other base personnel waiting for dinner. An arch connected the lounge and mess hall, and from the pleasant smells wafting through, Imogene guessed they didn’t have much longer to wait.
Just then, an elegant-looking ring tailed lemur stepped in from the corridor. Patches of dark fur surrounded her large orange eyes, making them seem sunken into her mostly white face, while behind her a long black and white tail arched gracefully. She paused in the doorway, looking over the new faces before speaking. “Good to see you arrived intact. I’m Colonel Zella Hasara, commanding officer here.”
Sergeant Hendricks rose, and they exchanged salutes before he moved forward to shake her hand. “Sergeant Robert Hendricks.”
She nodded and smiled. “They sent me your file.” Her smile widened as she turned it on the remaining newcomers. “But the rest of you I’ll have to get to know the old fashioned way.”
She and the Sergeant moved off to one side, and the interrupted conversations resumed.
Imogene hadn’t been paying much attention to the group nearest her. Alexei had cornered two crewmen from the remaining Paladin, and was grilling them about some detail of the vehicle’s drive system, while she and Ryan listened with increasing boredom. She finally gave up on the conversation entirely and leaned back against the wall to watch the gathered people.
Colonel Hasara had concluded her discussion with the Sergeant, and now worked her way through the new infantry. She moved smoothly from person to person, never seeming to intrude, picking up names and a few personal details, then gliding on to her next target.
The colonel made it through five of the eight new arrivals before a metallic clang drew everyone’s attention.
Behind the counter that separated the mess from the kitchen, Gwen lowered the two pans she’d used as an impromptu dinner bell. “Everything’s ready when you are.” She gave them a wide, and toothy, grin.
With a few good-natured complaints, Jack and the other missile techs formed a line and filed past the serving counter.
In line a few places ahead of Imogene, Victor paused to sniff and look down curiously at the steaming pot of reddish-orange stew that was the main offering. “I’m not sure I’ve ever had this before. It certainly smells interesting.” He looked up at Gwen inquiringly.
The jaguar smiled. “It’s a fish curry. Or as close as you can get with the supplies up here.”
Smiling back, Victor scooped out a good-size helping. “Curry, huh? It’s supposed to be rather spicy, isn’t it?”
Gwen rested her hands on the counter and leaned forward. “It can be, but this is pretty mild. The colonel has me keep things from getting too...heated.” Her voice fell to a throaty purr and she flicked her whiskers at him. “Give it a try, and if you’re still feeling adventuresome, come see me. I’ll spice things up for you.”
Next in line, Lauren snorted. She bumped her hip into Victor’s, nudging him away from the jaguar and her bubbling stew.
Gwen watched them, and her shoulders slumped just a little. She took a breath then, and smiled, helping Lauren to a ladle-full of curry.
Besides the curry, there was steamed rice, wholewheat rolls, and a fruit salad that tasted almost as good as if it hadn’t been made with canned and frozen ingredients. Imogene had never tried curry either, and found this “mild” version more than hot enough for her tastes. It irritated the still-healing gap where her tooth had been, but not enough to be more than an annoyance.
Some of the others moved into the lounge when they finished, but Imogene headed for her quarters. She felt less dejected now that they were settled in and moving forward, but tomorrow was going to come early. And if she knew anything about the Sergeant, it wasn’t likely to be restful.
* * *
A vigorous pounding on the door signaled the start of a new day. Blinking in the dim light, Imogene slid down from her top bunk. Across the tiny sliver of floor, Fiona rose as well, and the two of them pulled on their fatigues and headed for the corridor.
Breakfast was already well under way when they reached the mess hall. Imogene made her selections from the array of baked goods, eggs, and cold cereals, then took a seat beside Fiona and opposite Bruce.
The stag nodded them a good morning, and sent Imogene one of his understated smiles. She smiled back before slathering jam over a muffin. Her misreading of Victor’s intentions had left her questioning everything, but at least friends like Bruce and Fiona proved she wasn’t a total waste of oxygen.
A little later, Ryan and Alexei trailed in and sat across the table from Imogene.
Alexei took a huge bite of muffin and looked around as he chewed. “Where’s the Sergeant?”
“I’m not sure.” Bruce set down his coffee and wrinkled his wide, black nose. “He was here earlier, but then he and Colonel Hasara went off somewhere.”
Alexei flopped one ear. “Probably finding more crates for us to shift. I thought we were supposed to be security guards, not cargo haulers.”
“I heard the sarge and Gwen talking about patrols yesterday,” Imogene offered. “Maybe he and the colonel are working all that out.”
“That’d be my guess,” Bruce said. “Not much else we’re good for, except standing at attention outside doorways or something.”
Alexei shuddered. “That makes tromping around outside look good all right. Or even moving boxes.”
Ryan glanced up from his cornflakes and poked the rabbit. “What’s that, ’Lexei? You’d rather work than loaf against a wall somewhere? And I thought I knew you!”
Imogene and Bruce chuckled while Alexei just rolled his eyes.
Sergeant Hendricks arrived later, and stood in the doorway. “Good. You’re all here, and finished eating.” His gaze slid over Alexei, who hurriedly stuffed the last of a fourth muffin into his mouth. “As you’ve probably guessed, our job is mostly to be on hand in case anything goes wrong. We’re also gonna be doing regular patrols around the silos so you cubs don’t get too fat and lazy.”
Ryan elbowed Alexei again and whispered, “See? No loafing allowed.”
Ignoring the byplay, the Sergeant continued. “We’ll work out a rotating schedule, but I want to take everyone around the perimeter this morning so you know the routine. Now, let’s get suited up!” He turned with a sharp wag of his black and white tail, leaving his subordinates scrambling to clear their dishes and follow.
Lauren and a few of the others ducked into the refresher as they passed, catching up with the rest in the armory.
“Full kit and weapons, people.” The Sergeant watched the late arrivals struggle into their armor. “Trouble only comes when you aren’t ready for it.”
Armored up, they tromped into the garage, then over to the line of parked surface buggies. The short-range vehicles had an open cockpit just large enough for two people, with a small cargo space behind, then a boxy housing around the flywheel power supply.
“We’ve got a lot of ground to cover,” the Sergeant said, “so we’ll be using these. Just like a car or go-cart back home, but take it easy till you get a feel for the gravity.” He strode up to the nearest buggy and snapped his rifle into a clamp in the cargo area.
The rest of the squad moved to claim their own buggies, except Lauren.
“I’ve...gotta head back inside,” the lynx said, her eyes darting uncomfortably. “I’ll be right back.”
“What for?” Ryan asked. “Do you need any help?”
Already edging towards the corridor, Lauren glowered. “That jaguar’s cooking isn’t sitting well, okay? It won’t take a minute.” With that, she bounded away, leaving her comrades looking after her.
A few seconds passed, then the Sergeant shrugged. “Better than in her suit.” He turned back to his buggy and disconnected it from the charging station before climbing into the driver’s seat.
Imogene headed for another of the buggies and followed his example. While she unplugged it, Bruce slipped into the passenger seat. She’d been expecting Fiona, but he wasn’t a bad option. Better than Lauren, anyhow. She tucked the cord into its compartment, then looked down at him. “You’re sure you don’t want to drive?”
“Nope.” The stag gave her a wink. “I trust you.”
“That makes one of us.” She flicked her ears, which didn’t work out so well inside a helmet. She settled in beside him.
True to her word, Lauren returned before anyone could grow impatient, and climbed in beside Victor.
Night still shrouded the surface, and a dusty gray slope stretched to the limit of their headlamps. The small buggy skittered under Imogene’s guidance, and she was glad the Sergeant set a sedate pace. Going much faster over the deep ruts and loose dust would definitely leave Bruce wishing he’d driven.
A klick or so south, the ground dropped away to their right, and they followed the rim of a mid-size crater. A small, hand-lettered sign marked a suicidally steep trail leading to one of the missile silos, somewhere in the murky depths below. Eventually they came to a loop trail that encircled the whole installation, and followed it around. The patrol took all morning, and Imogene’s stomach started growling long before they returned to the base.
The squad trooped into the mess hall, and Gwen looked up from tidying behind the counter. “Finally found your way back, I see.” She tilted her head to one side. “I was just about to start putting things away.”
Sergeant Hendricks picked up a tray and glanced over at the sparsely populated dining area. “We must be more than half your customers. Wouldn’t do to lose all that business.”
Her black-spotted muzzle split in a wide grin. “No, I suppose it wouldn’t. Well then, help yourselves.” She waved broadly to the waiting food, then leaned on the counter to watch them file past.
They shuffled forward, and Imogene looked hungrily at the platter of diagonally cut sandwiches.
Then Lauren reached the counter, and the line ground to a halt. “It’s not more of that spicy crap, is it?” She stared down at the serving platter suspiciously.
Gwen arched one dark eyebrow. “It’s a sandwich. Ham, cheese, bread. The worst thing on them is army-issue mayonnaise, which isn’t spicy, but still might count as crap.”
That got calls of agreement all around, and Alexei nearly dropped his tray laughing.
Lauren didn’t look convinced, but reluctantly took a sandwich. She added a handful of corn chips, but avoided the steamed vegetables and potato salad.
Behind her, Victor had no such compunction. He took a hearty helping of everything, and gave Gwen an apologetic smile before padding off with Lauren.
Gwen rolled her eyes, then turned to help Imogene load up her tray.
It might have been hunger adding spice, but the sandwich tasted good to Imogene, the much maligned mayo included. The mayo was better than the processed ham, actually. She rolled a bite around in her mouth, separating the flavors. After two weeks eating whatever was served, she didn’t really notice meat anymore. She’d have to be careful next time she was home; that carelessness would probably annoy her mother and Josh more than purposefully ordering steak.
Imogene sighed. It would have been nice to seek some maternal commiseration over Victor, but every day she and her mother stayed at odds, the less chance she saw of things improving. By the time they could see each other again in person, vegetarianism would be the least of her worries.
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 fourteen, with tasty snacks.
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