MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
The deep-throated blare of an alarm jolted Imogene from slumber. Instinctively, she slapped at her chronometer to silence it, but the howling continued, coming from a speaker above the door.
In the other bunk, Fiona mumbled and pushed her pillow down against her ears.
Imogene staggered over to her locker and threw on her fatigues. A base-wide alert meant one thing: trouble. She crouched to shake her sleeping roommate.
Fiona swatted at her with a massive, white-furred arm.
Imogene dodged and redoubled her efforts. “Come on, we’ve gotta get up.”
The polar bear growled and rolled out of her bottom bunk. “Why?” Her voice was thick with sleep.
“I don’t know.” Imogene stepped around her towards the door. “Just get dressed.”
The bright lights of the corridor stabbed her retinas. She blinked, trying to focus on the disheveled crowd filling the passage. Sergeant Hendricks’ shirtless, black-spotted form pushed through the mass of furred bodies.
“Weapons and armor, people! Move!” He waved them towards the armory, then dashed for the command center.
Pulling off her recently donned clothing as she ran, Imogene’s thoughts spun. The alarm had stopped. They’d keep it going if the base were under attack, wouldn’t they? But to wake everyone up, something had to be very, very wrong.
Before anyone finished sealing their armor, Sergeant Hendricks appeared in the doorway. His face was grim. “All right, there’s some serious shit going down. We’re sitting okay here for now, but I want everybody armored and with weapons nearby at all times.” He pushed his way through to his own locker. “I didn’t get the details, but there’s been some giant explosion in Asia, and now everyone’s scrambling.”
Victor glanced up from his armor. “What do you mean a giant explosion? We didn’t bomb them, did we?”
“I hope not.” The Sergeant’s muzzle tightened. “Some of the missile crew might know more. They were awake when it happened.”
Even with his late start, the Sergeant had his suit on before the last of his squad finished. Taking his rifle down from its rack, he checked the safety before slapping in a power pack and full magazine. “Weapons hot and ready, people, but for gods’ sakes keep the safeties on. Imogene, Bruce, you’ve got guard duty in the command center—don’t ask me what you’re supposed to be guarding it against. The rest of you are with me; there’re some old entrenchments outside we need to check out and fix up.”
Imogene and Bruce met Colonel Hasara coming out of her office and followed her through the security door into the command center.
The door clicked shut behind Imogene, sealing them into the small and unimposing room. The only furnishings were four computer terminals, two set into the far wall and the other two freestanding.
Captain Jack Schuld and the red-furred squirrel lieutenant who was his usual shift-partner sat at the built-in terminals.
“Nothing new.” The wolf glanced over his shoulder. “We’re down to three comm sats, but the fiber line’s still working.”
Colonel Hasara dropped into one of the vacant swivel chairs. “Okay. Sing out if anything changes.” Her long, ringed tail flicked nervously against the floor, then she looked up at Imogene and Bruce. “You can relax. Regs say you have to be here, but they don’t say you can’t be comfortable.”
Imogene took up position beside the room’s only doorway, her rifle propped against the wall by her knee.
Across from her, Bruce did the same. After a moment he cleared his throat. “What exactly is going on, if I may ask? The Sergeant said something about an explosion?”
The colonel sighed and rubbed the gray fur of her forehead. “I really wish we knew. Jack, tell them what you told me.”
The wolf spun his chair to face them. “We were watching the news feeds, like we usually do. A little after midnight, they cut right out of the middle of an interview and started talking about some huge explosion in central Asia. It was all very confused. They got a satellite image up, with a big black cloud spreading out over China. Farther west it was still night, and the clouds were all lit up red and orange from inside...” His voice trailed off, a haunted look behind his brown eyes.
No one spoke, and after a pause he continued. “Then the civilian grid went dead, and we got put on Alert One. I’d already sent Lothar here to wake the colonel, and I guess you know the rest.”
The impact of what he’d said took a moment to register. Then it did, and a shudder ran down Imogene’s spine.
“Do we know what it was?” Bruce’s voice sounded tight, his brow knitted with worry. “An accident? A preemptive strike?”
“Whatever it was, it was big,” said Jack. “You could watch the black cloud spreading, pushing all the little white ones along before it... I just don’t know.”
A horrible thought crept into Imogene’s mind. “What about Europe?”
Jack shrugged and shook his head.
“I’m sure we’ll know more soon,” the colonel said. “Command won’t leave us hanging.”
Imogene grimaced. Eurasia was a big place, and there was a long way between Helsinki and China. New Zealand was even farther. She could only hope they were both far enough to keep her family safe.
After a time, the energy granted by adrenaline began to fade, and the colonel sent Imogene in search of coffee. She found the mess hall deserted, but someone had the forethought to set the coffee maker into full production, which helped. Returning with a tray of steaming mugs, she set them down at the unoccupied computer terminal.
“I didn’t know how you take it, so they’re all black, I’m afraid.” She took one herself and retreated to her corner again.
Colonel Hasara took a mug and smiled. “Black is fine.”
The two at the console rose, and Jack stretched his lanky arms, scraping claws against the low ceiling before he lifted a mug to drink. A tone sounded from the console, and he jerked to face it with a curse.
“We just lost the last sat-link,” he said. “All we have now is the secure fiber line to Santbech.”
The colonel’s ears flattened. “Are the sats jammed, or shot down?”
Jack typed rapidly at the console before replying. “I can’t tell. We’re getting increased radio noise, but it doesn’t look like enough for jamming.”
The screens flared and died, and all but the red emergency light went dark. Imogene’s heart rate spiked and she grabbed her rifle.
“Damn it!” The colonel jumped out of her chair. “EMP? Power failure?”
The screens flickered back to life, and Jack’s claws clicked over the keys. “High altitude EMP,” he confirmed. “We’re right under one of the launch paths for replacement comm sats. Someone’s gotta be shooting them down as fast as they can launch.”
The colonel nodded. “What’s our status?”
“Missile systems are okay, and some comms. The rest is a mess. Looks like we burned out a board somewhere in the main computer.”
“Get the techs after it. We need to be one hundred percent, ASAP.”
Another, more strident tone sounded, and a red light on the console began to flash. The three missile techs froze, eyes riveted on the blinking light.
“Oh no, gods, no,” the colonel breathed.
Imogene’s gaze darted from the light to the colonel and back again. “What? What is it?”
“It’s a launch order.” The colonel closed her eyes briefly before she snapped into action. “Jack, decode and confirm. Lothar, get the infantry back inside.”
Imogene couldn’t think. She just stood there, eyes wide and ears straining against her helmet to flatten. This couldn’t be real. It was some terrible mistake, or a sick, sick joke. But one look at the colonel’s grim expression showed she was deadly earnest.
The lemur paced behind her subordinates. “How are we doing with that message, Jack?”
The wolf shook his head. “It’s—corrupt. The header and the first seven target-sets are there, but the last three and the confirmation codes are missing.”
Her tail twitched. “Then get them to send it again.”
“Right.” He typed frantically for a few seconds, then looked up. “The line’s dead. It’s showing a break somewhere past the third repeater.”
This time her tail did more than twitch. “And the sat-link is still down? Do we have any outside comms at all?”
Jack glanced down at the screen, then back up, shaking his head helplessly.
The colonel turned and paced over to the wall, then drove a fist against the white paneling. “Blast it! Enter the seven we have and pull the rest from standing orders.”
Jack looked over at her in disbelief. “You’re not seriously going make a launch based on some fragmented transmission?”
Her tail thrashed as she turned to face him. “I don’t know. It came over the secure line; there’s no way it could be a hack or computer error. Someone with clearance at Santbech keyed in each and every character. I have to assume it’s a valid order, and I’ll be damned if I let some cable-cutting PAF bastard keep me from carrying it out!”
The wolf’s jaw tightened, but he spun back to the console to resume his rapid typing.
Colonel Hasara stood by the wall, visibly regaining her control, then moved up behind the other tech. “Are Sergeant Hendricks and his people inside?”
The squirrel looked up nervously. “Yes, sir. I’ve got them standing by in the garage.”
She patted him on the shoulder. “Good, that’s fine. Let’s close the blast door then.”
A long minute crawled by, then Jack stopped typing. “I’ve entered the coordinates, Colonel.”
She stepped over to his side. “Bring up the targeting plot.”
The screen changed, and the colonel let out a low whistle. Imogene shifted to get a better view. Dozens of red pinpricks covered Asia and eastern Africa. It hadn’t seemed possible to feel more sick, but now her stomach knotted itself into a solid mass. If just a fraction of the colonel’s warheads got through, they’d erase half the planet.
“A full spread. Figures.” The colonel’s lips twisted down at the corners. “All right, lock it in. Lothar, I’m gonna need your seat since we didn’t get the codes for an automatic launch.”
Jack turned to the colonel, a heavy look in his eyes, ears flat. “You’re really going through with this?”
Her gaze didn’t waver as it met his. “I am. And if you won’t help, I’ll get Captain Mercier in here, and she will.”
“At least wait till we get the seismic monitors back online. We can wait, and only commit if we pick up other launches.”
The colonel snorted. “And hope the next EMP doesn’t take us out completely? Or that we don’t miss the other launches while we’re blind? I’m not willing to take that chance. Are you?”
Jack looked down at his hands, and Imogene was sure he was going to refuse. A tense handful of seconds passed, then he nodded. “I’ll do it.” He reached up and pulled a chain with a key on it from around his neck.
Beside him, Colonel Hasara produced a key as well.
Inserting them on opposite sides of the console, the two missile technicians entered a long string of characters into their terminals, then sat still while the biometric scanners re-confirmed their identities. A small green light above the console flicked on, and the colonel looked over at Jack.
“On my mark. Three, two, one, mark.”
They turned their keys in unison, and the green light went out.
Imogene released the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and glanced around. Maybe the whole horrid mess was just a joke, after all?
She was about to ask if something had gone wrong when a gentle tremor shook the floor beneath her hooves. It built into a growling, shaking roar, then slowly died as the distant missiles escaped their launch tubes and clawed frantically upwards into the silent blackness of space.
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 sixteen, with the rockets' red glare and all that jazz.
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. =^_^=