MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Imogene studied the map on her heads-up display as they hiked north, but with the LPS satellites shot down it was more trouble to scroll to their current location than the low resolution map was worth. She could see the hills around them, and knew where they had to go.
On foot it was even easier to remain hidden in the cover of the hills. Ten kilometres and three hours of gray dust and airless rocks passed before they came into sight of the battle ahead.
Bruce approached a boulder-strewn skyline with caution, then waved Imogene and the others up beside him. “No doubt about it; they’re pushing right up into the pass.”
Peeking from behind a dark outcrop, Imogene surveyed the plain separating them from the jagged hills of Santbech Crater’s rim. Hulks of armored vehicles littered the flats, left behind as the tides of battle swept higher up the valley’s other side. Yellow flashes and short-lived clouds of dust marked where the fighting now raged in the pass between their valley and the deep crater sheltering Santbech Base.
Even using her rifle scope, Imogene couldn’t tell the difference between PAF and UNA tanks at this distance. But there was no question the unit of laser artillery nearing the summit was PAF. Santbech’s laser-based defense screens could only block physical projectiles, so the PAF’s first step in attacking the base was to knock out the screen emitters with lasers of their own. What happened after that would depend on if they wanted to capture, destroy, or simply bury the base.
She scanned the hills for the missile carriers Sergeant Hendricks thought he’d seen earlier, but if they were there, she couldn’t spot them. Maybe the PAF were planning to take the base intact. A prize like the factory-fortress of Santbech wasn’t something to destroy lightly.
A few metres above her on the ridge, Mike stared through his rifle’s scope. “No way we’re getting through that. They’re packed practically tread to tread.”
“What if we circle around?” Bruce asked. “On foot, we don’t really need the pass.”
The wolverine nodded. “That’ll get us in, provided the perimeter turrets aren’t set to shoot anything that moves. And I don’t think we’re gonna find anyone willing to help until the battle at the pass is settled, so getting out should be okay too.”
Imogene frowned. “We’re talking at least a day then? You really think Victor can wait?”
Mike looked down the slope at her and shrugged. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“Wait a minute,” Bruce cut in. “Something’s happening. It looks like they’re disengaging.”
Imogene swung her own rifle up and trained its scope on the pass. Sure enough, the PAF had broken off, retreating in a disorganized rout. But why fall back when they were winning? She looked up from her scope and caught movement across the sky.
A burning star twinkled in the blackness, arching up from deep inside the crater, then falling towards the pass.
As if in response, dozens of other rocket flames shot from a fold in the hills before them, skimming the crater rim and stabbing down at Santbech, even as the first rocket plummeted towards the PAF formations. Missile carriers that had been hidden from view scattered, the ugly elongate vehicles joining the chaotic retreat.
“They’re giving up!” Alexei laughed. “Look at them run!”
The words barely left his mouth before a flare of pure white light erupted from the base beyond the pass. A burst of electromagnetic radiation accompanied the visible light, and an ear splitting shriek ripped through Imogene’s helmet. Her heads-up display went dead, along with all her suit’s other systems.
The rim of the crater shielded them from the blast’s full force, keeping them from being instantly cooked. The light lasted only a fraction of a second, replaced as the crater rim disintegrated into an expanding wall of dust and debris. Some of the pieces were the size of small mountains, and the whole mass hurtled outwards at terrifying speed.
With an inarticulate yell, Imogene dropped behind her boulder. Jack was there too, and she crawled on top of him with some vague notion her armor might protect them both.
Then the wave hit.
There was no sound, but the ground jumped and trembled. Flying dust choked the vacuum around her, blocking out the sun. There might have been a second and third flash, but it was impossible to be sure. The rain of rubble increased, and small stones pummeled Imogene’s back. Most of them felt slow moving, probably kicked up by secondary impacts.
Under her, Jack writhed, clawing deeper into the dust. With her comms and life-support offline, all she could do was try to stay atop the struggling wolf. It was good he was struggling. It meant he wasn’t dead.
Hours seemed to pass, although it couldn’t have been more than a minute or two. Then the storm abated.
Imogene didn’t notice exactly when, but the comforting hum of her rebreather resumed. Thank the gods most military systems were hardened against electromagnetic pulse weapons. That hardening cost dearly in terms of performance, but right now she’d definitely take her primitive suit that worked over a modern one that didn’t.
Using the boulder to push herself upright, she dislodged a thick coating of dust that had settled over her. Then she looked up and gasped.
A dozen metres to her left, a new crater yawned, easily deep enough to swallow a tank. Many of the smaller craters looked fresh too, while farther along their ridge a large bite of rock was now missing.
Turning her gaze towards the pass, Imogene shuddered. The whole area was unrecognizable. The pass was still there, but cut deeper by a misshapen, ovoid crater. A glassy sheen gleamed on its walls, and what looked like molten rock pooled at the bottom, glowing an evil reddish-black.
The feeling drained from her body as she stared at the devastation. All she could think was to wonder distantly how the single incoming warhead had left so large a hole. The tech manuals said at most two hundred metres. This had to be more than a kilometre. Were the manuals wrong? Or had the PAF held back some of their missiles, accidentally adding power to the doomed base’s counter-strike?
That made more sense. The manual couldn’t be wrong.
She was barely aware of Jack rising beside her until his muttered “Gods!” broke the silence.
She jerked, staring first at him, then at two more figures staggering upright. One was Alexei, but the other’s chest patch had been scared beyond recognition.
“Imogene, Jack. Good.” Bruce’s voice identified him. “What about Fiona?”
Imogene shook off her shock. “I...don’t know. She was farther down the ridge.” She pointed to where she’d last seen the polar bear.
Still leaning against the boulder, Jack caught Bruce’s arm as he passed. “Mike?”
The stag shook his head. “His suit didn’t restart.”
Jack let him go and sagged back. Bruce and Alexei continued on, and after a moment, the wolf shuffled after them.
Imogene followed, and a few minutes later, found Fiona half-buried in a small crater. She lay face down, a softball-size chunk of twisted metal embedded deep inside her life-support backpack.
Imogene’s throat closed up, and she turned quickly away.
Losing control wasn’t an option. If grief took over now, it wouldn’t let her go. She had to turn that ever expanding sorrow into something else. Anger. Anger came easiest, but who to blame? The PAF? The politicians who set everything in motion? The all too absent gods? It hardly mattered, so long as it burnt her emotions down to sullen embers.
She could deal with embers.
Trudging back to the boulder that had protected her, Imogene probed in the dust for her rifle. She found it, and sat down heavily to inspect the weapon. Not a scratch on it, and the tiny info screen flickered cheerfully to life with no sign of damage.
“Great.” She ground the word between her teeth. “All our friends may be dead, and we’ve got nowhere to go, but when we get there, we can still bloody well kill something. Just great.”
The other three reclaimed their weapons. Bruce and Alexei stood while Jack slumped down beside her, helmet resting against his knees.
Alexei tilted his head to one side. “Nowhere left to go? We’re going on to the base, right?”
Bruce gave an exasperated sigh. “You see that shiny new crater over there? That’s what the base will look like. Everything left is gonna be buried or fused solid, and we can’t wait for them to dig themselves out.”
“There’s gotta be someone who isn’t buried,” Alexei insisted. “We’re still here.”
“Probably, but remember whose troops were farthest from the blast?” Bruce looked out over the battlefield. “If anyone is still operational, they’re gonna be PAF. The jamming’s gone, but I’m not picking up any UNA signals except ours.”
Imogene took a deep breath and pushed her growing despair to the back of her mind. No matter how hopeless things seemed, Alexei was right. They couldn’t give up. Not with Victor counting on them. She looked up at Bruce. “So they’re PAF. Does it matter who we get to help?”
“Victor needs a hospital,” Bruce said. “Assuming any PAF medical units even survived the blast, do you really think they’d waste space on prisoners?”
Imogene’s muzzle tightened. Of course the PAF would have wounded of their own. More than any mobile hospital could hope to handle.
Alexei hefted his rifle. “I’ll be damned if I surrender to a bunch of pandas anyway.”
No one spoke, then Bruce sighed. “It won’t help Victor, but surrendering might not be a bad idea. Our air won’t last forever, and I’d rather be a POW than a corpse.”
Jack hadn’t said anything so far, but suddenly perked up. “Borda. We can go to Borda.”
“And what is Borda?” asked Alexei.
“It’s a fuel depot. Maybe a hundred klicks south. We can make it before our rebreathers’ power runs out.”
Bruce turned to face him. “You can get us there cross-country?”
“I can try,” Jack said. “I was only there once, but it’s better than nothing.”
There was a long silence, then Bruce nodded. “Better than nothing. Alexei, Imogene, what do you say?”
Alexei agreed quickly.
Imogene closed her eyes. A hundred kilometre hike meant giving up any hope of helping Victor. But was there any real hope here? She glanced out at the tortured battlefield. Even if any UNA troops had survived, they’d be in even worse shape than she and her friends.
Nodding slowly, she rose to her hooves. “I guess we’re running out of options.”
The hike back to their stranded Paladin grew longer with each step. Imogene couldn’t remember the last time she’d stolen more than scattered moments of sleep. The others flagged too, rising slower each time a missed step or small meteoroid sent them sprawling.
Jack continued to be lucky. He was hit only once, and that failed to puncture his suit. He picked up a limp, though, and said he could feel a nasty bruise forming.
At last they reached their overturned vehicle, and Bruce broke the weary silence. “Lauren? We’re back. Don’t shoot us as we come inside.”
“Bruce?” Lauren sounded anxious. “Thank the gods you’re back. He...hasn’t woken up.”
“What’s his monitor say?”
She paused a moment, then, “Vitals are mostly the same, but the heart irregularity’s gotten worse.”
Frustration roughened his voice, and a helpless, hopeless despair rolled over Imogene as well. At least everyone else had died quickly. Victor was alive, but there was nothing they could do to keep him that way.
“But it’s okay, right?” Lauren asked. “You brought help.”
Bruce sighed heavily. “I’m afraid not. They nuked the base before we could reach it.”
“What do you mean?” Lauren’s voice took on a shrill note. “There must have been someone left to help. Didn’t you even try?”
“No,” Bruce said. “We’re lucky to be alive, and we were twenty klicks out. Anyone closer is gonna be too busy with their own problems to give a tail flick for us.”
Following Jack and Alexei, Imogene slithered through the dusty tunnel, then forced her weary muscles to haul her up into the main compartment. She didn’t bother standing, just pulled herself off to one side and collapsed.
In the tent at the rear of the cabin, Lauren sat beside a barely breathing Victor, his left hand clutched in her lap.
“So what are you going to do?” Lauren asked.
Last in, Bruce stopped with his head and shoulders sticking up out of the crew cabin. “There’s another base south of here. Jack’s gonna show us the way.”
“Okay,” Lauren said. “You’d better get going.”
The stag scoffed, his carefully neutral tone turning acidic. “Look, we’ve been walking for eight hours, and awake for more than I can count. We’re exhausted. Mike and Fiona are dead. The Sergeant’s dead. Victor’s as good as dead. I can’t help him, and I hate that more than I know how to say, but it’s the way things are. Now, I don’t care about the rest of you, but I’m going to rest for at least six hours and then head south. You all can do what you want.” He withdrew down into the crew compartment.
The silence hung thick, and Imogene looked over to Lauren. “I sorry, but he’s right. I don’t think I could make it more than another klick.”
Across the cabin, Alexei and Jack both looked away and nodded.
“I see.” Lauren drew a long breath. “And I’m not stupid enough to go off on my own. So now we wait.”
* * *
Imogene jolted awake. The tail fragments of a dark dream pounded through her head, and for a terrible moment smoke filled her nostrils and she felt the crushing weight of water. Then it was only her suit’s padding, pressing sweat-damp fur against her skin.
She forced her breathing to slow. Against the far wall, Jack and Alexei slept, while Lauren seemed not to have moved at all. Her chronometer showed almost eight hours had passed since they returned to the Paladin. She’d more than half expected Lauren to wake them after Bruce’s six hours were up.
Lauren turned, her open visor exposing her face. Damp fur matted her cheeks, real tears darkening the silver coat to match her tear-line markings.
With a few blinks and eye gestures, Imogene opened a private comm channel. “How is he?”
“He’s dead.” Lauren’s voice came rough, but the words held no intonation. Not even the veiled scorn she directed at everyone but Victor and the Sergeant.
Imogene’s gaze flicked down to Victor’s golden fur. Another friend gone. That warm smile of his darted through her mind. The energy with which he attacked life, the fire in his eyes when he spoke of his family’s warrior tradition. Now he was dead without even seeing combat, all because a two-credit seat restraint had failed.
Her chest ached, swollen with more death and loss than it could hold.
And how much worse must Lauren feel?
She raised her eyes from Victor’s still form, wishing Lauren could see through the tinted visor to the pain and sympathy Imogene knew was written across her face. They might have been rivals, but no one should have to go through something like this alone.
“Are you?” A hint of inflection crept into Lauren’s voice. “You really are.” She looked back down at Victor, and her shoulders slumped. “I guess that makes you better than me, somehow.”
Imogene shook her head. “No. He was a squadmate, and so are you. You must feel sorry for Ryan and Alexei, right?”
“Same thing, then.”
Lauren didn’t say anything.
Imogene wished she knew what more to say or do. Fiona would have known. Or the Sergeant.
After a time, she fished out a tube of EVA nutrient. Sucking in a mouthful of the metallic tasting fluid, she wrinkled her nose and swallowed. The field rations they’d been living on might be unappetizing, but she had a feeling they would be remembered fondly after a few days of this thick, yellowish slop. She finished nearly half the tube before Lauren spoke again.
“Did Jack say how far this base of his was?”
Imogene hastily cleared her mouth. “He wasn’t sure. Something like a hundred klicks.”
“So at least thirty hours march, plus rests...two and a half, three days?”
“The terrain is pretty broken. I’d say three or four.” She took another swallow of her rations.
Lauren looked out of the tent at their sleeping companions. “Do you think we should wake them? Four days is going to cut things close with the rebreathers.”
Imogene hadn’t thought of that, and frowned. “Yeah. First let’s see about going through the...casualties’ supplies. If we have their power packs, we can push things out to a week or better.”
The lynx nodded, and together they collapsed the tent, folding it around Victor as a sort of shroud. Then they turned the Sergeant over and sorted through his equipment. Imogene didn’t bother with ammunition or the rifle power packs. Rations, water, and the main life support power pack were all that mattered now.
“That’s one,” Imogene said when they’d finished. “And the drivers make three. Why don’t I take care of their supplies?”
“All right.” Lauren stared down at Victor and his discarded armor. “I’ll...finish up here.”
Bruce sprawled asleep under the ladder way, and Imogene stepped carefully around him to reach the dead crewmen.
Still terribly swollen, their exposed features had grown hard. The blood and other fluids would have boiled until the elastic force of the skin and tissues made up for the lost air pressure. What didn’t boil off froze as the bodies cooled. It was definitely not a flattering way to be preserved for eternity, and Imogene tried not to look too closely as she worked.
She was climbing back into the main compartment with the two power packs when Bruce woke. She wasn’t sure if she’d bumped him, or if he roused on his own. Either way, his sudden comments over the main comm channel woke Jack and Alexei, and the five survivors divvied up the scavenged supplies.
It didn’t take long, and then Bruce looked over to the pile of their personal effects. “What about our duffels?”
Imogene shrugged. “I’m just gonna take a set of fatigues and whatever else I can fit in my pockets.”
Lauren had moved Victor to lie with the Sergeant, so there was space to unstack the duffels and find their own.
Naturally, Imogene’s was at the bottom, and by the time she freed it, the others were already sorting out the possessions they wanted to keep. She opened the drawstring and grimaced. Her toothpaste hadn’t taken kindly to the change of pressure, and sticky green goo covered everything.
She picked out her datapad and a few health and grooming items, then discarded the rest. Toothpaste smeared her family photo as well, but rather than try to clean it now, she wrapped the small rectangle of plastic in a spare shirt and tucked it into her backpack.
It was a week now since both sides had launched their planetary bombardment missiles. Had Josh and their mother survived? She gnawed her lip, thinking of the dozens of red markers carpeting the target map back at Pons. And that was only a single missile cluster. How many thousands of other warheads must have been launched?
She shied away from that question. All she could do now was hope. Hope, and keep moving forward.
Outside, lunar dusk drew near. Shadows lay strong over the rumpled gray landscape, and while there was plenty of light for now, only a few days remained before the sun would sink below the horizon. They were on their own, and somehow the desolate hills and craters seemed even more forbidding than usual.
Last to emerge from the tunnel, Jack rose to his paws. “Borda is south and east. The road goes north around these hills, but we can cut through them. Then there was a big valley, and some more hills.”
Bruce nodded. “I looked the route over on the map. Even with the satellite positioning system down, I think we can manage. Heads down, face forward.”
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 twenty, wherein giant rocks fall from the sky.
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