MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Half an hour later, everyone gathered in the mess hall. Those who had somehow managed to sleep through the alert and subsequent launch had been roused and filled in. Gwen even laid out an early breakfast, but no one had much appetite.
Once everyone was seated, Colonel Hasara stood to address them. “As I’m sure you’re all aware, we received a launch order, and have carried it out successfully.” This met with a glum silence, and she hurried on. “We’ve since lost communications with Command. Under those circumstances, our orders are to seal the base and withdraw to regional headquarters at Santbech, assuming contact cannot be reestablished en route.”
She paused, her orange eyes sweeping across the twenty-some-odd people of her command. “I want us out of here ASAP, so everyone needs to get their effects in order. Jack, give the techs a hand shutting down the power and life-support. Gwen, see about loading some rations and other critical supplies. Everyone else, get packed, find a pressure suit, and assemble in the garage.” She nodded sharply and left them to carry out her orders.
Emptying her locker, Imogene stuffed her fatigues into a duffel. She began to cram the smaller bag holding her other effects in on top, then hesitated. The small bag’s zipper resisted briefly, but she yanked it open. Her gauntleted fingers slipped into the jumbled grooming supplies and other oddments, and came up with a pair of photos, laminated together in hard plastic.
The first was old, and she spared only a fleeting glance at her father, fishing with her five-year-old self. The photo on the other side was current, showing her and Josh with their mother beneath a maple tree. They were all smiling, and she bit her lip remembering the day it had been taken. It was just before she’d left for Basic, and her mother had skipped work so the three of them could spend the afternoon together.
Where were they now? Were they okay? With communications severed, there was no way to find out.
The tromp of armored boots thudded in the corridor, and Fiona’s locker clanked shut.
War wouldn’t wait.
Clenching her jaw to keep her emotions in check, Imogene tucked the photo away and slung her duffel over her shoulder. She took up her rifle and followed Fiona to the garage.
Gwen and a handful of others loaded boxes from a hand cart up into the truck. They seemed to have things under control, so Imogene moved to stand with her squadmates beside the Paladin.
After several minutes, Ryan shifted. “It just doesn’t seem real, somehow,” he said in a small voice.
No one spoke, then the Sergeant slowly shook his head. “No. No, it doesn’t.”
“W-what are we gonna do now?” Ryan stammered.
Alexei put an arm around the ground squirrel’s armored shoulders. “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.”
Ryan looked up imploringly at the rabbit. “But how could it be? It can’t have been just us that got the order. And the PAF must have launched too! How can anything ever be okay again?” His voice grew shrill by the last, and he sounded close to tears.
Before Alexei could answer, Lauren snarled. “You think we don’t all know that? Get a grip for gods’ sake!”
“Leave him alone!” Alexei turned on the lynx. “He’s just scared, like the rest of us.”
Lauren scoffed, and was about to reply when the Sergeant wheeled to face them. “Shut up! The lot of you.” He glared back and forth between them. “Now is not the time for schoolyard antics. We’ve got a job to do, and I expect you to do it with at least the semblance of professionalism. Is that understood?”
Lauren swallowed whatever she’d been about to say and gave a crisp nod. Alexei followed her example, then turned his attention back to Ryan.
Imogene kept her eyes fixed on the cracked lithcrete floor and shivered. Ryan was right. Nothing could be “okay” ever again.
Before her mood could darken further, Colonel Hasara and Jack stepped out of the corridor and into the garage. They each carried a duffel, and wore the same bone-white, one-size-fits-all emergency suits as the other non-combat personnel.
The colonel tossed her bag into the truck, then turned to survey the waiting troops. “Jack, call the roll.”
The wolf pulled a datapad from beneath his arm and began reading off names. Reaching the end with no absences, he looked up and nodded.
With a flick of her tail as acknowledgment, the colonel raised her voice. “Everybody, mount up, and move out.”
Jack stayed where he was, waiting while the white-suited support troops climbed into the truck’s rear compartment. He sealed the door behind them and trotted quickly towards the cab.
Imogene’s group loaded up too, letting Mike and his two subordinates climb in ahead of them. The infantry followed, settling in with more shifting around than usual. Most of their duffel bags fit under the seats, but between those that didn’t and everyone’s weapons, things were tight.
Imogene claimed her customary seat at the farthest end of the left bench and strapped in. Then came the familiar start and stop, start and stop as they passed out through the base’s airlock for the last time.
The squad’s mood had been dour to begin with, and the Sergeant’s outburst made everyone think twice before breaking the heavy silence. With the less rugged truck dictating their route, the ride was smooth, and after a time Imogene began to nod in and out of a light doze.
She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the crawler came to an abrupt stop. Reaching up to rub the sleep from her eyes, her gauntlets clanked against the lip of her helmet and she thought better of it.
“Yeah,” Mike’s deep voice floated down from the crew cabin. “Looks like you’re high-centered. The rim of that little crater’s got you good.”
“Great. Could you give us a push over it?” Jack asked.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea; that old truck doesn’t have any skid plates, and we could mess up the drive train.”
“Right.” The wolf sounded annoyed he hadn’t thought of that. “What do we do then?”
“The ground here’s pretty loose, I’d say we dig it out from under you.”
“That’ll take a while, won’t it?”
The wolverine snorted. “Better than shredding your undercarriage.”
Jack was silent for a minute, then, “Okay. The colonel says get some of the infantry to do it. We don’t want anyone poking holes in these flimsy emergency suits.”
“Will do.” Mike leaned to peer down into the main compartment. “Hendricks? You get that?”
Across from Imogene, Sergeant Hendricks nodded. “We’ll take care of it.”
“Shovel is in the outside utility locker. There should be one on the truck, too,” Mike offered before settling back into his seat.
The Sergeant glanced around the compartment. “Right, everybody out. We’ll see how many shovels there are, and the rest of you can stretch your legs.”
Imogene’s seat at the front of the crawler left her with the last group to cycle through the airlock. Gray hills loomed to either side of their small valley, while ahead, higher outcrops rose to what might warrant the label of mountains. Countless craters pocked the nearer hills and valley floor, ranging in size from tiny divots up to a few truck-eating monsters.
Several dozen metres ahead, the truck rested nose-down in a crater. One rear wheel was lifted clear off the ground, and the other sunk hub-deep in the fine gray dust. Bruce and Victor had found a pair of short-handled shovels, and set to work undermining the high-centered vehicle.
Sergeant Hendricks had exited with Imogene and bounded over to them. “Careful it doesn’t come down on top of you,” he said, kneeling down to peer under the truck.
Victor kept working, his answer punctuated with grunts. “Don’t worry, it’s just stuck on one high spot. There’s good clearance everywhere else.”
The Sergeant gave Victor a nod he probably couldn’t see, then settled back to watch.
The rest of the squad stood off to one side, and Imogene moved up to join them.
As boring as the inside of the Paladin had been, watching two sets of legs sticking out from under a truck was hardly an improvement. She shifted restlessly, then looked upwards, but couldn’t find Earth. Only a slender crescent should be visible at this point in its cycle. Maybe that coupled with the unfamiliar surroundings had confused her?
But finally spotting it, she saw the normally blue and white arc had turned an ugly gray-black, blending with the darkness beyond. She raised one hand to shield the sun’s glare, and her mouth twisted into a grim line. It was hard to make out, but a scattering of faint, reddish glows marched across the planet’s night side.
With a violent shake of her head, she forced her eyes down to the powdered dust between her boots. They didn’t know for sure what was happening on Earth. Couldn’t know. And dwelling on that helplessness would only make it worse.
In the crater, Bruce and Victor made steady progress. All four wheels were on the ground now, and the stag crawled out to begin clearing the wheels that had spun themselves into the dust.
Something flickered across the sky.
Before Imogene could look up, there was another flash and the truck jerked under a heavy impact. A spray of dust shot out from beneath the vehicle and spread in a strangely perfect arc without air to make it billow. Shrapnel and small rocks pinged off Imogene’s armor a moment before the dust reached her.
By reflex, she threw herself flat. Much too late to avoid the blast of dust and gravel, her dive brought her into the cover of the crater’s rim. Confused shouts flooded the comm, voices yelling, demanding to know what was going on.
Imogene cursed, clutching her rifle, but unsure where to aim. Her heart pounded as she scrambled over the rim and into the crater proper. She looked up, scanning the hills for any sign of their attackers.
The squad scattered, and the Paladin lurched into reverse, Mike taking it backside-first into one of the larger craters.
Imogene’s guts twisted as the seconds crawled by, but nothing more happened.
The Sergeant shouted down the other comm chatter. “Does anyone see anything? Mike, anything on the scopes?”
All his replies came back negative, and Mike ventured a further guess. “Meteoroid?”
Beside the truck’s front wheels, the Sergeant nodded. “Probably. If anyone was out there, why stop with one shot?”
The quavering voice of a missile tech broke in. “If we’re safe, we could use some help back here. Captain Mercier’s suit is leaking, and Gwen—Gwen’s gone.”
A spike of ice stabbed Imogene’s chest. Just like that, Gwen was dead?
“Gods blast it!” the Sergeant snarled. He scrambled upright and bounded towards the back of the truck. “Is everyone else okay?”
This time the only negative was Victor. “I’m all right, but I can’t move. The truck’s got me pinned.”
“Okay, someone get him dug out.” The Sergeant reached the truck’s rear door, but paused with his hand on the latch. “Is there any atmosphere still in the truck?”
The same tech answered. “No. There’s...nothing.”
Bruce joined the Sergeant, and together they pried the double doors open and climbed inside.
Imogene and the others rose shakily to their paws and hooves. Down in the crater, Lauren and Fiona kicked up a fountain of dust as they worked to free Victor.
Nearer to the cargo compartment, Imogene moved towards the open door to see if she could help. She looked inside—and instantly regretted it.
An ugly gash ripped through the truck’s left wall, and a twisted, fist-size hole marked where the meteoroid had exited through the floor. But that wasn’t what made her turn away and begin to retch. Her glimpse may have been fleeting, but it was more than enough to show Gwen had been sitting directly in the object’s path.
Head down and leaning with her hands propped against the side of the truck, Imogene coughed and sputtered. She tried to use the suit’s sick-tube, but nothing came up, only more bile-laced saliva like the spatters already smearing her faceplate. She was still breathing heavily when the shadow of someone approaching made her look up.
Bruce stood there. The silver faceplate hid his expression, and he spoke no words, just nodded once and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.
She gave a weak smile, then remembered he couldn’t see it. Not trusting her voice, she reached up and clasped his gauntlet instead.
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 seventeen, a day late and a dollar short, as usual.
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