MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Armor Corps sergeant Mike Sommer had always dreamed of serving his country as a professional seat restraint tester. At least that’s what Imogene suspected after five minutes riding behind him in the Paladin’s crew compartment. There was a perfectly good road, but at the first opportunity, the stocky, russet-furred wolverine took off cross-country. The tank-like personnel carrier could take the abuse, but his passengers were another question.
Strapped into the navigator’s seat, Imogene looked out the tiny slit windows at the desolate gray landscape. The sun had risen the day before and cast a raking, low-angle light over the craters and boulder fields.
Beside her, Alexei took the gunner’s position, while between and in front of them, Mike sat in the sunken driver’s seat.
Learning to drive Luna-style vehicles was supposed to be part of their initial training, but with the rush to leave Santbech, instructing them had been shuffled off onto the local Armor Corps contingent. Which at Pons, meant Mike.
A smoother area came into view, and Imogene wondered if he would detour to avoid it. He didn’t, taking them out into the middle of the dusty plain before killing the engine.
“All right.” He glanced back at Imogene. “Move on up behind me so you can see the controls better, and I’ll give you the rundown.”
There wasn’t much space on the floor between her seat and Alexei’s, but Imogene slid into it anyway. The driver’s seat was sunk halfway into the floor, so kneeling behind let her look over Mike’s shoulder and see everything.
He perked his round ears at her. “Do you play any of the ‘Tank Commander’ games?”
“Only once or twice.”
“Excellent! You’ll have some idea how things work, without being cocky. The basic controls are the same, but take it slow; there’s no reset button out here.” He went over the details then, along with a warning or three against common mistakes, before letting Imogene take his place.
Pressing the ignition button, she brought the crawler to life and gripped the T-shaped steering yoke. The controls were less responsive than the simulators she’d used, but still fairly simple. After twenty minutes crawling around the flats and over a few small craters, she was confident she could handle the vehicle alone.
She surrendered the hot seat to Alexei, and strapped in for what proved to be a bumpy ride.
If Mike’s driving had been rough, Alexei’s was horrible. Both of them took delight in hitting every available obstacle, but at least the wolverine had experience. Imogene’s nails dug deeper and deeper into the seat cushion as Alexei raced from one end of the training field to the other, then spun into a tight corner before lurching forward again.
“Watch it!” Mike yelped. “Not so fast on the side hill. It’ll roll.”
“Right, sorry.” Alexei slowed and cast a grin back at them. “I’ve always wanted to do this.”
“I can tell.” Mike’s ears lay flat, but he managed a weak smile. “How about this: you slow down, and I’ll let you drive us back to the garage. Deal?”
“Sure. The base is...left, right?”
“Right,” Mike said. “Left.”
Closing her eyes, Imogene shook her head. They really were two of a kind.
With their earlier tracks to follow, Alexei brought them home without mishap. The painstaking crawl through the narrow entry tunnel and airlock set Imogene’s teeth on edge, but when he cut the engine, everything seemed to have gone off without a hitch.
They climbed down into the passenger compartment, then out onto the lithcrete.
The first indication everything wasn’t right came with the smell of canned pears. Imogene’s mouth watered. Hopefully it was something Gwen was cooking up rather than spilled coolant. But given the strength of the smell and the fact they were in the garage, the latter seemed more likely.
Then she noticed the puddle spreading from behind the Paladin. Mike saw it too, and stifled a curse. With an ugly look at Alexei, he hurried around to the vehicle’s far side.
She and Alexei trotted after and arrived in time for the tail end of a sigh.
“You”—Mike jabbed a finger at the white rabbit—“are a lucky son of a gun.”
Peering past him, Imogene saw her nose had been right. A case of preserved fruit lay crushed under the Paladin’s treads. Alexei had come in just a hare’s breadth too close to the pile of new supplies.
Alexei padded over and knelt beside the ruined cans. “Yeah?” He looked up at the others. “Now I just have to hope Gwen doesn’t kill me instead.”
Before Imogene could see what Gwen’s wrath would amount to, Sergeant Hendricks entered the garage and pulled her aside. “We’ve got a call holding for you.”
“A call?” Imogene’s throat tightened. Real-time comm channels to Earth were reserved for official business. Or family emergencies.
The Sergeant nodded, muzzle set in a tight line. “Come on. You can take it in the colonel’s office.”
Colonel Hasara wasn’t in her office near the end of the main corridor, but the Sergeant entered confidently and pointed Imogene to the computer terminal. He stepped back out and closed the door as Imogene slid into the lemur-scented chair. Without its owner’s biometrics, the terminal wouldn’t let her do anything important, but the communications program was already running.
Her mother’s face filled the screen, red-rimmed eyes staring somewhere above the camera, jaw working in tiny nervous biting motions.
“Hi, Mom,” Imogene said. “I’m here.”
The three-second time lag between Earth and moon passed before her mother responded. The older caribou’s face softened, ears folding back in relief.
“Imogene, I’m glad you’re okay. Josh...Josh got hurt.”
Forgetting the delay, Imogene blurted a question even as her mother continued. “They won’t tell me what happened, just that he’s in a hospital in New Zealand with burns and a broken leg.”
Imogene frowned. The leg might be an accident, but burns? “Is he going to be okay?”
“I don’t know. They said he’s not in danger, but they won’t let me talk to him.” Her mother wiped away a fresh spate of tears, then folded her ears even tighter and looked right into the screen. “Imogene, honey, I’m sorry about before. I love you, and while I wish you’d found some other job, nothing will ever change that.”
“I love you too.” Tears of her own clouded Imogene’s eyes and she blinked them away. “I shouldn’t have let them ship me out so fast. They offered a later flight, but I didn’t think it would matter. I should have stayed and worked things out with you first.”
“It’s okay, honey. I’m just glad you’re happy. At least you sounded happy, in your letters.”
“I am.” She fought back thoughts of Victor. Now was definitely not the time. She pricked her ears up. “It’s not quite how the posters make it look, but I’m doing good. This is what I want to do.”
“That’s good. I miss you.”
“I’ll be dirt-side again in about three months. Josh should be home by then too, and we can all go down to Kaivopuisto and watch the leaves change.”
After the comm delay, her mother smiled. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“Me too.” Imogene watched her mother, wishing she could lean forward and give her a hug. “Tell Josh to get better for me, when they let you call him. I love you both.”
“I love you too, honey. Take care of yourself up there.”
Imogene stared at the blank screen after the call ended. Tears welled up, and she dabbed at them, uncertain if they were from the thought of Josh in a hospital bed somewhere or the relief of clearing the air with her mother. She wanted nothing more right now than to hop on the next shuttle to be with them. But the only way that would happen was if she qualified for a sole survivor discharge, and she definitely didn’t want that.
She scrubbed her eyes again, then got up and left the office.
The moment the door opened, the scent of spiced and simmering pears filled her nose. With the aroma came a flood of warm memories—pies her mother baked; the fancier but not as tasty ones they’d sometimes buy at the park; fighting with Josh over the last piece.
Gwen’s voice floated out of the kitchen, scolding Alexei not to burn the filling or she’d stick him in the oven instead of the pies. Ryan snickered, and the Sergeant’s low voice rumbled something she didn’t catch.
Imogene paused, unable to keep her lips from quirking up at one corner. Three months was a long time away from her mother and brother. But at the rate things were going, she’d have a second family here before her tour was over.
* * *
With her arms full of dirty clothes, Imogene paused outside the lounge door. An irregular staccato tapping made her ears twitch, and she poked her head in through the door just in time for a small white ball to hit her on the nose. She jerked back with a reflexive yelp.
“Sorry about that.” Jack stepped into her field of view with a guilty grin.
She freed one hand to rub her nose. “No harm done, I guess. What are you up to in there, anyway?” She stuck her head cautiously back inside.
The wolf’s ears perked up, and he gestured to a folding table that occupied the center of the lounge. “Ping-pong. Someone pulled the table out of storage this morning.”
Across the table, Gwen gave her a sheepish wave.
Imogene smiled, then turned back to Jack. “How does that work with the gravity and all?”
He raised one bushy eyebrow. “Don’t tell me the folks at Santbech let you loose without learning lunar ping-pong?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“That will never do.” A serious expression fell over his features and he shook his head. “Take care of your laundry, then report back here so we can rectify their terrible oversight.”
Imogene forced her eyes wide and nodded. “I didn’t realize it was so important. I’ll hurry.” She gave the wolf a wink and trotted off towards the laundry. They’d started another game before she returned, so she leaned against the doorway to watch.
Gwen seemed to be the better player, and before long, she sent the ball skimming over the net to strike Jack’s court, then sail away past his frantic counter-swipe.
He caught his balance on the edge of the table and sighed.
The ball floated across the room, moving at an impossible angle and dropping only slightly before it disappeared behind a sofa in the far corner.
Gwen chuckled and set her racket down on the table. “Looks like you still need some practice, Captain. I think I’ll take a break and let you two go at it for a bit.” She flopped onto the lounge’s other sofa and spread her arms along its back.
Jack cocked his head at Imogene. “Well, care to help me find the ball? We’ve only got the one left since the techs discovered they were just the right size for cleaning the waste reprocessor’s tubes.”
They reclaimed the ball and began batting it back and forth. As Imogene was coming to accept as normal, the ball fell towards the table quite slowly. But you could still hit it sideways at normal speeds, which made things tricky. Between that and the fact she’d never been very good to begin with, they spent more time hunting for the ball than actually playing.
It was during one of these pauses that Sergeant Hendricks stepped in from the corridor. “Where’s the rest of the squad?”
The Dalmatian’s expressionless face set off tiny warning bells in Imogene’s brain. She straightened, fingers tightening on her racket. “Um, the last patrol are asleep. Alexei and Ryan were with the Paladin crew in the garage. I don’t know where Lauren is.”
From the sofa, Gwen snorted. “Did you check the refresher?”
Imogene flicked her ears at the jaguar’s remark. Lauren’s ongoing intestinal distress—along with her insistence that Gwen was not only the cause, but was somehow doing it on purpose—had made her a staple of the base’s more crass humor. At first Imogene had been secretly pleased, but now she just felt sorry for her.
Jack chuckled, but the Sergeant’s whiskers didn’t so much as twitch. “Get Ryan and Alexei and get suited up, then meet me in the garage,” he said. “One of our shuttles just got shot down on approach to Tycho. We’re bumping up our patrols.”
The bottom dropped out of Imogene’s stomach. Tycho was only a few hundred klicks away, and unlike Australia, the moon offered little political ambiguity to hide behind. She’d seen incidents like this worked out before, but never when tensions were already so high.
“Shit,” Jack said.
“Yeah.” The Sergeant’s blank expression darkened into a frown. “PAF are saying it was in their airspace, but that’s a load of crap.” He turned to Imogene. “Get moving. This is no drill.”
* * *
Cold, and so very wet. The air heavy with the musk of sodden fur and concrete. Beams from hand-lights flashed and skittered across the water, while Josh and the other littles cried. Another rumble shook the shelter, and Mother’s arm crushed her close. It was getting deeper, the water. Hooves, ankles, armpits—frozen and forgotten below the surface.
She wanted to leave. Wanted to find Father and go home, but they wouldn’t let her.
The floor sank away, and she clung to Mother as the crowd surged forward. Angry words at the door, a scream. Colder then, freezing wind. Snow and fire and darkness. Smoke flowing like water. Turgid. Burning. The distant thunder sharp now, and close. Men shouting and running. Mother’s hand, painful and tight, dragging. Less fire, more darkness. Still the cold and smoke.
Thick, oily smoke, fluid and drowning, filling her lungs and stealing her breath—
Imogene sat up gasping. Darkness filled their room, and for a moment she could have sworn the air held a trace of smoke. The scent faded before it could properly register, leaving her to pant at the flat, recycled atmosphere before rolling out of bed.
The refresher lights flickered on when she entered. She leaned on the nearest sink and stared into the basin. That particular nightmare hadn’t troubled her for some time now. She’d forgotten the raw fear and confusion it left in its wake.
At least it hadn’t been the other dream. No one should have to dig their father’s corpse out of a fallen building, much less a terrified six-year-old. She couldn’t remember his ruined face, just the blood-red medic’s diamond on his helmet. That same age-worn symbol that should have protected him and the hospital where he’d died. But modern war respected no noncombatants.
Behind her, the door opened again, and the click of claws on tile made her look up.
“Are you okay?” Fiona asked quietly.
Imogene took a deep breath. “Yeah. A bad dream. Sorry I woke you.”
“It’s all right.” The white bear rested a hand on Imogene’s shoulder. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Did she even want to think about it? “Not really. I just need a minute to clear my head.”
Fiona’s round ears twitched, and she gave a small smile. “Okay. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.” She patted Imogene’s shoulder, then clicked her way back towards their quarters.
* * *
The new patrol schedule was hell, especially with their one squad doing the work of two. Still damp from the shower after a late evening patrol, all Imogene wanted was to eat something and fall into her bunk. Not that sleep provided much of an escape lately. Maybe Gwen had some sedative teas hidden away that would stop the dreams?
She barely made it into the mess hall before Alexei popped up beside her.
“Have you heard?” he demanded, his whiskers twitching.
Recoiling from his sudden appearance, Imogene flattened her ears and snorted. “Heard what?”
Alexei backed off, his nose and whiskers still aflutter. “They carpet bombed Sydney. All our guys inland are cut off now. The High Chancellor’s about to make a live statement.” He retreated back into the lounge, gaze darting to the wall-mounted display screen.
Imogene followed more slowly and came up behind the sofa where Bruce, Jack, and now Alexei sat. The screen showed only an empty podium with a backdrop of the UNA’s red and blue circle crest. She looked down at Alexei.
“Any idea what’s so important he’s telling everyone in person?”
“I don’t know.” He glanced up at her. “It’s got to be about Sydney, though. Right?”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Right. High Chancellor Braxton is getting off his tail just to tell everyone what the news grids have been blaring for the last three hours?”
“So what do you think it is?” Alexei thrust out his chin.
“I’ll admit, the timing with Sydney is suggestive, but it has to be bigger. I’m wondering if we’re pulling out altogether. Now that would be worthy of a live address.”
“Pulling out?” Alexei asked. “You think we’ll just roll over and let the pandas win?”
Bruce shrugged, while beside him, Jack’s muzzle bobbed in a nod.
“It makes sense,” the wolf said. “We can’t keep going with resupply through contested airspace, so unless we retake a port somewhere, the game’s pretty much up. It’s either going to be pulling out, or some sort of treaty settlement.”
Imogene pursed her lips. It was the same shabby game that had played out across Scandinavia when she was little. Invade some technically neutral nation, grab as much territory as possible, then rewrite the treaties afterward to suit whoever won. If the locals were lucky they might even keep titular independence.
On the screen, a figure moved up to the podium, and Imogene’s companions fell quiet.
A powerfully built tiger with just enough silver around his muzzle to look distinguished, High Chancellor Braxton had been head of the UNA’s governing council for as long as Imogene could remember. Today, he’d passed up the dark suit he usually wore in favor of the general’s khakis and beret he’d earned before entering politics.
“Greetings, my fellow citizens. As most of you already know, the military situation in Australia has deteriorated. I won’t repeat the details, but suffice to say that despite our troops’ gallant efforts, our position there is no longer viable.” He paused, looking gravely into the camera.
Imogene’s lip twisted. So they were pulling out, after all. Probably good for the civilians and soldiers in the short term—especially since a truce would make sure Josh got back to Helsinki—but giving up still rankled. Never mind the longer term implications.
The Chancellor raised his muzzle, and a steely resolve entered his voice. “However, we will not allow temporary setbacks to dictate our actions, or turn us from the course we know to be just.”
Her ears twitched at this, and Bruce sat forward on the couch.
“Earlier today, the Commonwealth of Australia petitioned for admittance into the Unified Nations of America, and was accepted by a unanimous vote of the governing council. The mainland of Australia, and all its outlying possessions, are now sovereign UNA territory and will be defended as such. The Pan-Asian Federation has been given twenty-four hours to break off hostilities, and a further forty-eight to begin withdrawing troops. If by that time we are not satisfied of their full cooperation, we will consider them in violation of the Armistice of 2143 and proceed by any and all means necessary.”
The tiger nodded, and some of the hardness left his features. “These are trying times, but rest assured that our cause is just, and in the end, we will prevail. Thank you, and good night.”
The picture cut to an image of the UNA crest, and silence filled the lounge.
“Well, that was unexpected,” Jack finally said.
“By any means necessary,” Alexei repeated. “What does that mean, exactly?”
Bruce sagged back into the sofa. “Just what it says. The Armistice is the cornerstone of all the other territorial and arms control agreements. Antimatter weapons, orbital bombardment, the Heartland Immunity Treaty...he’s threatening to put it all back on the menu.”
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 fifteen, Calm. And we all know what comes after the calm...
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