MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Imogene picked herself up out of the dust for what felt like the thousandth time. They’d been traveling steadily for the better part of ten hours and were nearing the crest of a tall ridge. Above, Jack and Alexei stood on the skyline. They weren’t that much farther ahead, and she drove her weary legs on to join them. Just as she came to a stop beside the white-suited wolf, another meteoroid threw her flat.
“That’s it,” she said. “I’ve been knocked down three times in as many minutes. And I know we’ve all seen the bigger ones starting up again. I say we find someplace sheltered and rest until they slow down.”
Jack offered her a hand up. “No argument from me. This maggot skin suit may have turned out to be tougher than it looks, but I’m still getting beat up where you guys just get knocked over.”
Imogene’s mouth tightened at the reminder. “Yeah. Sorry about that.”
“Not your fault.” He shrugged.
Bruce reached the ridge and moved up on Jack’s other side. “They seem to be coming from the north. Someone’s still fighting up there, I guess. Let’s drop down the ridge a bit. That should block some of them.”
The far side of the ridge was steeper than the one they’d climbed. Scree slopes filled the spaces between cliff-like outcrops, and a fine layer of fresh dust covered everything. Imogene slipped and fell more than once, but the meteoroids did reduce noticeably.
Then Lauren spotted a deep cleft between a boulder and a cliff face. Everyone fit inside, and its entrance offered a view of the way ahead.
“So, is this your big valley?” Lauren waved at the uneven plain below.
Jack wriggled up beside her. “I don’t think so. It should be pretty wide. This can’t be more than a few klicks to the next ridge.”
“Figures,” Lauren grumbled, then crawled back into the crevice.
They rested for several hours, eating, sleeping, occasionally creeping towards the entrance to gauge the severity of the meteoroids. Eventually they set forth again, down the ridge and then eastwards across the rugged valley.
Imogene watched her power readout drop past twenty percent with a worried eye. She had the Sergeant’s power pack to replace hers when it failed, but the hills ahead seemed endless.
Three ridges and eleven hours later, she topped a final rise and looked out over a wide, flat-bottomed valley. Thirty klicks of pock-marked dust spread themselves out before a line of forbidding mountains stabbed into the star-specked sky.
“That would be the big valley.” Jack waved forwards. “Coming from this side, I’d guess those mountains are the outer rim of Borda.”
Beside him, Imogene suppressed a groan. “It’s big enough, all right. Those mountains look mean, too.”
“Yeah.” The wolf sighed. “The base is pretty high up on the north rim. If we angle that way, maybe we can hit the road.”
Lauren stared at the empty landscape. “There isn’t gonna be any cover worth mentioning out there. We should find someplace to rest before leaving the hills, then try and make it across to the mountains in one push.”
Imogene glanced over at her. The lynx’s arrogant self-assurance had returned, but how was she really coping behind that brusque front? Probably the same as the rest of them: one thing at a time, without thinking about what it all added up to.
She was right about finding shelter, though, and Imogene kept her eyes peeled as they descended.
Behind them, the sun hung low in the black sky. Every rock and hummock promised shelter in its long, dark shadow, but none gave true protection. At last they settled on a pair of tank-size boulders. One leaned in towards the other, but the narrow space between them still left Imogene feeling exposed.
They rested as long as their dwindling power supplies let them dare, then struck out across the flats.
Smooth, dusty terrain fled past under Imogene’s loping bounds. The valley floor was easy, and even the rolling foothills hardly slowed their march. Scattered pea-size bits of rock and metal continued to drizzle, but she ignored them as much as she could. The best course of action was to hurry on to Borda.
As they climbed, the drizzle turned to a ballistic hail, pelting in from the north. She kept her visor pointed down and her legs pushing her forward. Then a wave of larger impacts broke over the landscape, and Imogene’s blood turned cold.
Her gaze darted over the bleak surroundings. No cover. All they could do was sprint for the still distant mountains.
Towers of dust shot up from the larger strikes, leaving craters the size of manholes. She dodged around the holes, praying she and her friends wouldn’t be hit.
With the others close behind, she bounded up a gentle ridge, then stopped dead, teetering on the lip of a previously hidden crater. The bowl before her was large enough to hold a score of personnel carriers, but too shallow to provide cover from the meteoroids.
She turned and took three steps before something slammed into her chest. Knocked breathless, she cartwheeled into the crater. Rock, dust, and starry sky spun past as she rolled. Her suit took most of the punishment, but the final collision that stopped her tumble left her stunned.
Lying in the darkness, she struggled to get her lungs working. Up on the rim, her squadmates stood outlined against the stars.
“Imogene? Are you okay?” Worry tinged Bruce’s voice.
“I think so,” she said by reflex.
A cough sent a jab of pain through her lower ribs. Broken? Fear crushed down on her. She forced in a slow, careful breath. The pain came again, but less, and not sharp. Probably just a bruise. She pulled herself upright and looked for the best way out of the crater.
A deeper blackness within the gloom caught her eye.
Toggling on her night vision, she studied the crater wall. “You guys better get down here! There’s a tunnel or something.”
She scrambled for the dark hole even her suit’s sensors couldn’t penetrate. It was a tunnel all right, wide enough for a truck and rising to an arch well above her head. She turned on her headlamp and moved deeper into the rough-hewn passage. It ended in a solid rock wall a dozen metres from the entrance, with a narrow shaft bored straight up to the surface.
Jack staggered a few paces inside, then slumped against the wall. He heaved a sigh and let himself slide down until he was sitting on the rubble-strewn floor. “Ah, that’s better.”
Bruce nodded. “Much longer out there and we’d all be in trouble.” He glanced at Imogene. “You’re sure you’re okay? That’s quite a dent you’ve got there.”
She couldn’t see her own chest from inside the helmet, but her hands found a fist-size indentation left of her solar plexus. “Just a fierce bruise, I hope.” She licked her lips. “Not a bad trade for finding this place.”
“And exactly what is this place?” Alexei returned from his own exploration of the short passage.
“Who knows?” Bruce tipped his helmet at Jack. “From what Jack said, we’re getting pretty close. Maybe they thought about putting in a defense turret or comm relay. I’m just glad it’s here at all.”
“Yeah,” Alexei said. “Good job finding it, Imogene.”
“Luck.” She waved away his praise. Settling down beside Jack, she pulled out a tube of rations. The storm outside grew worse, and she watched with a numb detachment. The floor of the crater looked like it was boiling: short-lived fountains of dust erupting everywhere, punctuated with larger blasts that cleared to reveal new, metre-wide craters.
They watched in silence for some time before Alexei sprang upright. “Hey! There’s someone out there!” He bounded towards the entrance.
Imogene rose and ran after him. “Where?”
He stopped just inside the tunnel and pointed. “There, coming over the rim. Another one’s with him.”
Sure enough, two gray camo-clad figures were sliding recklessly down into the crater.
“Quick, turn on your lights so they can see us!” Bruce’s headlamp flared, and he switched to a general comm channel. “Hello! Over here!” He waved.
The one in the lead turned towards the tunnel. He gave a frantic wave of his own, but didn’t respond to Bruce’s hail.
“Hello?” Bruce tried again. “Lauren, can you tell what channel they’re using?”
“I don’t know. Gimme a minute.”
Outside, the two newcomers struggled closer. Only a few dozen metres of crater floor were left, but any progress against the hail of debris came hard won. Imogene rocked on her hooves, muscles tensed, as if she could help them run faster by sheer force of will.
Painful seconds ticked by, then the leader broke into range of the waiting headlamps, revealing the odd camo-patterning of his suit—
And the Pan-Asian Federation crest emblazoned on his shoulder.
Imogene’s eyes went wide.
Lauren hissed and clawed after her rifle. “They’re PAF!”
Without thinking, Imogene fumbled to unsling her own weapon. Her concern for the newcomers twisted into dismayed confusion. Of all the combat scenarios she’d imagined in idle moments, this was not one of them.
The two PAF soldiers came to an uncertain stop. The leader made a placating gesture, while his shorter companion froze. Neither bore a weapon.
Alexei’s aim shifted back and forth in agitation. “What do we do? We can’t just shoot them, can we?”
“Why not?” Lauren growled. “They’re fucking pandas.”
Anger twisted in Imogene’s nerve-wracked guts. Here, weak and unarmed, were two of the people responsible. Responsible for Victor. For her mother, and Josh, and Ryan. For the whole bloody mess.
And it would be so easy to pull the trigger.
One of the larger meteoroids struck between the two PAF soldiers, sending up a spray of debris. Falling to his knees, the leader wrapped his arms around his head, cowering against the onslaught. How many times on this hellish march had she fallen just like that? Helpless. Terrified.
Imogene shook her head sharply. “Damn it, they’re people!”
She dropped her rifle and lunged to grab hold of Lauren’s. The lynx yanked back, and the two of them tumbled to the ground. Imogene pulled the weapon free and tossed it farther along the passage. She shoved away from the cursing and flailing feline, scuttling clear before rising to her hooves.
By the entrance, Alexei lowered his weapon and Bruce waved the bedraggled PAF soldiers forward again. They skidded inside and collapsed. One happened to fall beside Imogene’s abandoned rifle, and Bruce hastily reclaimed it.
Before he could pass it back to Imogene, Lauren shoved between them. She backed Imogene up against the wall and leaned in until their mirror-finish faceplates touched.
“Don’t you do that again. Ever. You fuck with me, Rudolph, and you will regret it.” She pulled back and glared at the others. “That goes for the rest of you, too.”
Silence filled the tunnel, then Lauren spun and headed in search of her weapon.
Imogene sagged against the rough stone. Whatever understanding she might have rebuilt with the lynx seemed to have collapsed. But she didn’t regret her action. She was certain of that.
Bruce watched Lauren go, then returned Imogene’s rifle. “Anybody know how to do a comm hook-up with PAF equipment? What frequencies are they going to be using?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jack said. “It’ll all be encrypted. Just use the wide-band emergency channel. They should pick that up.”
“All right.” The stag turned to where the PAF soldiers sat recovering. “Hello? Can you guys hear me?”
The one who had been in the lead bobbed his blocky helmet. “Yes. We are receiving.” He gave the words an odd intonation, flat, yet strangely musical at the same time.
“Good. Are you both uninjured?”
“My companion’s wrist may be broken.”
Imogene cast a searching look at the second soldier, who sat with one arm cradled close. She wasn’t familiar enough with the angular, crustacean-like PAF armor to judge if the wrist joint was damaged, but given the onslaught outside, it was a miracle both soldiers hadn’t been pounded flat.
“Who cares if they’re okay?” Alexei spoke over the squad’s private channel. “Are there more of them out there? That’s what I wanna know.”
Bruce glanced over at him, then back to their new prisoners. “Do you need painkillers? Or sealant? That’s about all I can offer right now.” The wounded soldier’s helmet shook side to side, so Bruce continued with Alexei’s questions. “What are you doing here? Are you alone?”
The leader didn’t answer right away, but turned to look at his partner. There was a pause long enough for a brief exchange, and the second soldier shrugged. The leader looked at Bruce. “Yes, we are alone. We became separated from our unit, and our armored car was then damaged.”
“So you were trying to rejoin your unit. Where are they?”
“I...do not know.” The soldier sounded uncomfortable.
“They withdrew to the north.” The clear, female voice of the second soldier broke in. “We were rearguard scouts.”
“Shut up, Ming-Xue! They do not need to know that!” The first soldier rounded on her.
“You think it matters? They are long gone by now. You upset him, and he might let the angry one shoot us. You know they wanted to.”
“No one’s shooting anyone.” Bruce overrode an angry retort from the first soldier. “At least not if you both behave. Now, you said they went north. How long ago?”
Ming-Xue looked up at him. “Six or seven hours. I do not know exactly.”
“So as far as you know, there are no more PAF forces in the area?”
Bruce toggled to the squad’s channel. “It sounds like we’re okay for the moment, then.”
“If you trust her,” Alexei put in.
Bruce sighed. “Right. If we trust her. I don’t see it makes much difference one way or the other, though. We still need to reach Borda. Jack, do you think we can make it in one more push?”
Inside his clear helmet, the wolf frowned. “Probably. I’d feel better if we’d found the road.”
Alexei gave a cynical snort. “I’d feel better if we knew our friends here didn’t blow up the base before they left.”
Bruce turned back to the prisoners. “Were you attacking the base at Borda?”
“No,” Ming-Xue said. “We are scouts.”
“What about the rest of your unit? Did they attack it?”
Reluctantly, she nodded.
“And did they win?” Bruce kept his tone level.
“I do not know. The colonel was very angry to be ordered to withdraw.”
“That’s something, anyway.” He let the words trail off, then switched channels once more. “I guess we’ll just have to take our chances with the base. Anything else you guys can think of?”
“What about their names?” Imogene asked. “If we’re stuck with them, we may as well know what to call them.”
Bruce relayed the question.
“I am Private Guan Ming-Xue, ID number—” She rattled off a long string of letters and numbers, then looked over at her companion.
He just sat with his arms crossed over his chest.
When he remained silent, Ming-Xue spoke up. “He is Private Omar Arain. I do not know his numbers.”
“We don’t need them.” Bruce waved dismissively. “Now, we’re going to wait for the meteoroids to die down, and then continue on to the base. Don’t make any trouble and we’ll get along. Okay?”
Ming-Xue quickly agreed, and Omar gave a grudging nod.
Bruce looked around at his companions and sighed. “We’d better post a proper guard this time; I don’t trust them not to try running off.” He took a few steps back from the PAF soldiers, then settled down by the passage wall. “Alexei, why don’t you and I take the first watch and let the others get some sleep?”
Imogene hadn’t realized just how tired she was until he mentioned sleep. She’d been running on little more than nerves and adrenaline. Now the dull pain from the meteoroid returned to her ribs, and every muscle ached. She stretched out beside Bruce, glad her drooping eyelids wouldn’t give her time to brood on what might or might not await them at Borda.
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-one, which involves a good deal of walking.
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