MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Once more inside the Paladin and following the damaged truck south, Bruce turned to the Sergeant. “Do meteoroid strikes like that happen often?”
The Dalmatian shook his head. “Not normally. But if there’s heavy fighting, we can expect a lot more. Between the low gravity and no air to slow it down, shrapnel here can go thousands of klicks or even get into orbit.”
Still feeling queasy, Imogene looked up from cleaning her faceplate. “You mean if someone blows up a tank on the other side of the moon, the turret might land on us?”
“Probably not the whole turret. Bigger things take more energy to get moving. But shell fragments, or even gravel thrown up by explosions, yeah. The last big fracas was a little before my time, but I’ve heard some ugly things.”
Ugly things indeed. Imogene’s mouth went dry as she imagined fighting on a battlefield where every near miss sent dozens of smaller projectiles zipping off in random directions.
“So what happens if more start falling?” she asked. “Just hope we don’t get hit?”
“That’s about the size of it.” The Sergeant’s lips compressed to a tight line. “But remember, the Paladin has better armor than the truck. If something that size hits us, it might knock us around a little, but we’ll be okay.”
Imogene nodded grimly and turned back to her helmet. She didn’t have any proper cleaning supplies, but did the best she could with more spit and a corner of her spare fatigues.
It took another two hours to work their way south through the hills. Something was wrong with the truck’s rear steering, making the vehicle hard to manage. The front steering still worked, and the colonel decided to press on rather than attempt repairs.
Occasionally, Imogene heard the unmusical clank of small objects striking the Paladin, and she shivered to think how their unarmored companions might be faring.
Without satellite comms, they had to enter visual range of the Piccolomini N guard station to open communications. After explaining their situation, the colonel obtained permission for them to enter the base’s garage and investigate the truck’s steering problem.
Imogene had never felt quite so glad to have a few dozen metres of solid rock hanging over her head. The garage still stank, but now an eerily quiet replaced the bustle of two weeks ago. Only a lone supply truck remained of the many vehicles she remembered, leaving the space echoingly empty.
A pair of armored infantry moved to meet them. As they drew closer, the blue and purple unit patches of Sergeant Tanya Martinez’s squad came into view.
The colonel and Sergeant Hendricks stepped forward.
Sergeant Martinez nodded politely to them both. “Colonel, the CO would like a word with you in the command center, if it’s not inconvenient.”
Colonel Hasara looked back to where Gwen’s remains were being carefully unloaded. The Paladin crew and a maintenance tech from the truck poked around and under the damaged vehicle.
Turning back, she nodded. “Very well. I’m not familiar with the layout here.”
Sergeant Martinez waved her trooper forward. “Dez, take the colonel down to the command center.”
The two of them headed off, and the remaining troops relaxed. Imogene hovered near the sergeants, hoping Martinez had some news from Earth. The guard station was on a main route between Zagut and Santbech. They had to know more than an isolated missile crew.
“Glad to see you’re okay, Rob.” Sergeant Martinez clapped him on the shoulder.
Sergeant Hendricks gave her a tight smile. “You too, Tanya.” His smile faded. “How are things holding up here?”
“Not good,” she said bluntly. “Satellites and relay towers are all dead, and we lost the land lines about an hour ago. They had us out doing patrols before the meteoroids picked up. Now we’re just hunkering down until we get further orders from Command.”
Sergeant Hendricks cursed. “I was hoping the lines here would still be working. Was there any news about Earth?”
The hyena shook her head. “Not after the first half-hour. Traffic through here has picked up, though. There was an armor column from Zagut bigger than you would believe. We had to shut down the pass while they went through, and they had orders to take all our IFVs and all but two squads of infantry.”
“I wondered why it was so quiet.” Sergeant Hendricks glanced around the empty garage. “If they’re stripping the guard stations, it must be bad.”
The corners of her lips twisted down. “Rumor is the PAF are pushing south into Mare Nectaris. The Zagut column were headed north to shore things up.”
Imogene frowned. They’d crossed the dark plains of Mare Nectaris three weeks ago on the trip out to Pons. Had their road to Santbech turned into a combat zone?
One of the techs who’d been working on the truck approached. “Excuse me, but where’s the tool-crib? We’re gonna need some hydraulic line and splicing tools.”
Sergeant Martinez gave him directions, but before he could leave, Sergeant Hendricks caught his eyes. “What sort of time frame are we looking at?”
The tech shrugged. “An hour, maybe.”
“Good enough.” He let the tech go and turned to Sergeant Martinez. “Mind if I run my people through your mess hall?”
“Heh. Cook’s been making sandwiches like he thinks he’s gonna win the war all by himself. If you can put a dent in ’em, you’d be doing us a favor.”
* * *
The steering was indeed repaired in the promised sixty minutes, but then the aging truck’s power plant refused to start. With no one qualified for the needed repairs, the delay stretched from hours into days as they probed deeper into the vehicle’s mechanical heart.
A few other units crossed through the pass, including several message couriers and an emergency comm repair crew. From their cussing, Imogene gathered the meteoroids were shredding the fiber lines faster than they could repair them.
She didn’t want to think about that. What would a meteoroid which could damage an armored conduit under a metre of moon dust do if it hit a person? One fox on the repair crew swore the damage had to be sabotage, but to Imogene, that was an equally grim, if less terrifyingly random, prospect.
All the couriers were bound for the large bases farther east or west, and the only orders they had for the guard station were a generic “hold position”, and for Imogene’s unit, nothing at all.
After close to three days, the truck reluctantly shuddered into life. Imogene wished it had stayed broken. The quarters they’d borrowed here were spartan, but they were safe. Outside, rocks and bits of metal continued to rain from the cloudless, ink-black sky—sometimes more, sometimes less, but never stopping.
Colonel Hasara made them shut the truck down and restart it a dozen times before deciding it was reliable enough to resume their transit east to Santbech.
Imogene almost suggested waiting at the guard station. With all the courier traffic they could request new orders without risking the trip to Santbech, and in the meantime they’d be shoring up the ruinously shorthanded guard detail on an important pass.
But orders were orders, and Luna Corps wasn’t a democracy, so she bit her tongue and climbed into the Paladin beside her squadmates.
The pass at Piccolomini N wasn’t a normal mountain pass, but rather a low spot in the long line of cliffs encircling the Nectaris Impact Basin—a crater so large no one was quite willing to call it one. From the guard station at the top, they could look out over the rugged hills below, and just glimpse the ancient lava plain, or mare, at the basin’s heart. The much smaller crater of Santbech lay near the basin’s other side, far out of sight and more than five hundred kilometres away.
Even with the gentler slope of the pass, the road had been blasted into the mountain side, and descended in a precarious series of hairpin corners. From the bottom, the track took off northeast, headed for the plains of Mare Nectaris.
They’d been traveling a good six hours, about a third of the way, according to Mike, when they met a large convoy limping towards the pass. A pair of lumbering mobile-hospital crawlers led the way, and behind them trailed a motley string of vehicles. Tanks, personnel carriers, other things mauled beyond identification, all bearing the scars of combat, but all still crawling doggedly forward.
Imogene’s group pulled over to let them pass, and the colonel hailed them. “Hello, the convoy. This is Colonel Hasara, lately of Pons PBM base. Might I ask where you’re headed?”
The voice that answered her was deep and gravelly. “Captain Collins out of Zagut. The medics are evacing back there, and we broken toys are tagging along.”
“I see,” said the colonel. “We’re heading for Santbech. Can you tell me anything about the road ahead?”
“It’s ugly. There’s fighting out on the mare.”
“This far south?” she asked sharply.
“Yeah.” The captain sounded discouraged. “They broke through the line at Mädler two days ago. If you’re for Santbech, I’d strongly recommend cutting south around Fracastorius.”
Mike broke in. “That’s some rough country, especially for the truck.”
“It is. But things weren’t looking good when we left, so I’d say it’s your best bet.”
Colonel Hasara took over the conversation again. “All right. Thank you for the information.”
“Not a problem. Best of luck to us both!” the captain signed off.
The convoy moved past, but the colonel’s truck stayed where it was. After a pause, her voice came across the comm once more. “Mike, how bad is the track south? Can the truck make it?”
He sighed heavily. “Well, I’ve only been over it in a crawler, and it sure wasn’t built with wheels in mind. But if you’re careful, and take it slow...maybe.”
There was another, longer, pause. “It’s probably the better part of valor. We’ll give it a try.”
Despite Mike’s trepidation, the first hour or so was no worse than what had gone before. Then they came to the end of the narrow valley the cutoff had followed, and as the road climbed into the hills, their progress fell to a crawl.
Imogene held her breath each time they slowed to a stop, sure the truck had become stuck again. The hail of meteoroids had grown worse, and she had no desire to test their effect on infantry armor. Especially not while laboring to free a stranded vehicle.
But somehow the truck persevered, and they came down into another valley.
Mike and his crew had begun swapping seats so the driver could try and catch some sleep, and those in the truck presumably did likewise. Imogene’s chronometer showed it was now evening of their fifth day out from Pons, but time had little meaning in the cramped belly of the Paladin.
Early the next morning, Imogene and her squadmates stood in the shadow of their personnel carrier, waiting impatiently while the missile techs ate and used the Paladin’s tiny refresher. Both functions could have been accomplished in their suits, but it wasn’t pleasant. She glanced at the truck and grimaced. Mike’s crew had patched up the cargo compartment before leaving Piccolomini N, but dozens of new—and thankfully smaller—holes left the techs relying on their emergency suits again.
Rest stop completed, they started exiting the Paladin, and Imogene cast a last look around.
The sun shed a harsh light over the barren valley, illuminating kilometres of pale dust. Farther off, a heat shimmer danced, obscuring the dark jumble of a long-dead lava flow.
The shimmer moved closer, and Imogene gnawed her lip. “Do we get heat shimmers up here? Without air?”
“No.” Annoyance underlaid the Sergeant’s tone as he turned to her. “Why?”
She raised her arm, pointing to the disturbance. In the short time she’d looked away, it covered nearly half the distance towards them. The shimmering resolved into countless puffs of dust, exploding up from the surface.
“Shit,” the Sergeant spit. “Everybody inside! Get that truck moving!”
Imogene scrambled to comply, and the colonel’s voice cut across the comm. “What is it?”
“Meteoroids. Our shower’s turning into a monsoon.”
Imogene’s guts clenched as she climbed into the Paladin. She held on tight as the two vehicles abandoned caution and sprinted for the distant hills. They pulled away from the approaching hail of meteoroids, and Imogene felt a flicker of hope. If they reached the hills, they might find a gully or clump of boulders. Anything to shelter the truck.
Then the truck spun out.
“Gods blast it all to hell!” Mike shouted. “Hold on, Jack. I’m gonna push you.”
A sickening crunch shuddered through the Paladin.
“Stop,” Jack’s voice exploded over the comm. “You’re scraping us over a bunch of rocks. I just lost the rear drive line.”
The Sergeant’s gaze snapped to Imogene. “Get out there and get it cleared!”
In their mad rush to reenter the Paladin, she’d ended up by the airlock, and she, Bruce, and Fiona were the first ones out. A single glance at the roiling wall of dust sweeping in on them stopped her heart. Something struck her thigh, and she stumbled backwards. She caught her balance against the Paladin and stared down at a shiny silver dimple in her armor. Whatever it was hadn’t punctured the titanium, but still left its mark.
Shaking herself, she pushed upright and bounded after Bruce and Fiona. Dust flew out from where they dug, and Imogene dove in beside them. She clawed at the loose material. Her gauntlets scraped against larger rocks which she heaved aside. Then the truck was clear, and Bruce yanked her upright.
“Come on!” He shoved her towards the Paladin’s waiting airlock.
The hatch closed behind them and the Paladin surged forward, grinding into the truck’s bumper. Braced against the airlock’s ceiling and Fiona’s broad back, Imogene fought to stay upright.
The inner door opened, and she threw herself into the nearest seat. She pulled the restraints as tight as they would go. The truck must have gotten free, because they continued jostling forward at a faster pace.
The pinging of debris against the Paladin’s armor rose to a constant clamor, and Mike cursed again.
“We’re not gonna make it,” he shouted to Jack. “Stop down in that crater. I’ll pull up beside and give you some cover.”
That was the last thing Imogene heard. She’d been in a tin-roofed building during a hailstorm once. This was a thousand times worse. A machine gun roar of impacts, interspersed with brutal thuds that set the Paladin rocking on its treads. What felt like minutes crawled past before the deluge slackened.
“I can’t raise the truck,” Mike said into the relative quiet.
Sergeant Hendricks growled. “They can’t have held up under that beating. Everybody out; they’re gonna need help.”
The first thing Imogene saw was a white-gloved hand. It lay in the dust outside the airlock, with no sign of its owner. Swallowing against a wave of nausea, she yanked her gaze away.
Beside the Paladin, the truck looked like it had been attacked by a flock of metal-eating birds. The cargo compartment was stripped down to the frame, and the cab pounded into a misshapen lump. Twisted scraps of metal littered the ground, covering white-suited bodies.
“Victor, Alexei, check the cab,” the Sergeant called. “The rest of you, fan out. Someone might have crawled underneath or gotten thrown clear. Check it all.” He waved to the broken crates and crumpled sheets of what had been the truck’s walls and roof.
Imogene circled to the right, along with Fiona and Ryan. Most of the remains were beyond the help she, or anyone else, could give. Grim silence filled the comm channel, punctuated only by an occasional exclamation or sharp intake of breath.
They’d covered about half the debris field when Victor gave an excited yell.
“We’ve got a live one!” he crowed from where he and Alexei had pried open the ruined cab. “Bruce, Lauren, get him inside pronto. One of these little rocks might pop his suit.”
They passed Jack’s weakly moving form down to their waiting squadmates, then Alexei wormed his way deeper into the shattered vehicle.
Returning her attention to the search, Imogene took a single step before a meteoroid struck her from behind. The impact sent her face first to the ground. She cursed and scrambled back up to her hooves. The meteoroid shower intensified, dozens of tiny dust-explosions blooming around her.
Alexei crawled backwards out of the wreckage. “The colonel and the other one in here are dead.”
The comm let out a burst of static, and a few metres to Imogene’s left, Ryan flew over backwards. He didn’t move to get up, so she called out to him. “Ryan? You okay?”
He didn’t answer.
Atop the ruined truck, Alexei launched into a mighty leap, beating Imogene to the ground squirrel’s side by heartbeats.
“Ryan? Ryan!” Alexei shook his shoulder.
Imogene looked down, and an icicle broke itself off in her chest.
What lay behind Ryan’s shattered faceplate was no longer recognizable. Her stomach lurched, and she backed half a step away. This wasn’t real. Couldn’t be.
“Status?” the Sergeant barked.
“He’s—dead.” Her voice broke.
The Sergeant cursed. “Everybody back inside! We can’t do any more good out here.”
Alexei stayed crouched beside the fallen squirrel. He’d given up on shaking, and now just held Ryan’s gauntleted hand.
Imogene stumbled towards the Paladin but paused, looking back at him.
Victor had followed Alexei at a less reckless pace. He laid a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Alexei. We gotta go.”
The rabbit looked up at him. “But, we can’t just leave him here!”
Victor patted him again. “I know, but we don’t have time or space. We’ll come back for him. I promise.”
Alexei gave Ryan one final look, then surrendered to Victor’s urging. He rose, and with the big cat’s arm still clasped around his shoulder, stumbled towards the Paladin.
The three of them were the last back inside the crowded personnel carrier, and fell heavily into their seats.
At the front of the compartment, Jack sat across from Sergeant Hendricks. The wolf stared at the floor, his helmet held loose in one hand.
Mike stood at the foot of the crew compartment ladder. He looked from Jack to Sergeant Hendricks, then back. “So, what’s the plan?”
Jack didn’t look up, just shook his head wearily.
When it became clear he wasn’t going to say anything, Sergeant Hendricks took charge. “On to Santbech. Those were our orders.”
“Okay,” Mike said. “Without the truck, we should make the outer guard station in three or four hours.”
An especially loud clank made everyone wince. The Sergeant locked eyes with Mike. “Try and make it three.”
* * *
They had been under way again for some time when Alexei finally spoke.
“I told him it would be okay,” he said in a flat voice.
Victor put a hand on the rabbit’s knee. “You couldn’t have known.”
Alexei fixed dull eyes on the feline’s gauntlet. “We’d barely gotten to know each other, and now...now he’s gone.”
Victor opened his mouth, but nothing came out. A pained look crossed his face and his mouth closed.
Alexei started quietly sobbing, and Imogene looked away. She closed her eyes, seeing Ryan beside her at the rifle range. His shy smile as he helped her. The buck-toothed grin when he teased Alexei. Her throat tightened. Of everyone here, why did it have to be him?
A minute passed, then Lauren slammed a fist against her armored thigh. “It’s those bloody pandas’ fault, that’s what it is! Ryan, the truck, everything else! It feels like an accident or the will of the gods, but it’s not. If they hadn’t started this, everything would still be okay!” The lynx’s eyes narrowed to angry slits, and she pounded her fist again.
Everyone looked up at her outburst. Across from Imogene, the Sergeant nodded faintly, while Bruce’s brow knotted in a worried frown.
Alexei pulled himself together and watched the silver feline with wide, red-rimmed eyes.
Seeing she had everyone’s attention, Lauren bared her teeth. “It’s all their fault, and once we get to Santbech, and then out to the fighting, we’ll make them pay!”
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 eighteen, where chicken little gets his due.
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