MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
The last rays of the setting sun illuminated the installation below them. Set into a small, cirque-like valley about halfway up Borda Crater’s north rim, it consisted of a central dome, joined with a boxy, above-ground garage that looked to have been added later. There were a few other outbuildings, and on the valley’s far edge, a tall comm tower poked up from the gray ridgeline. All in all, it was a lovely example of a pre-Unification era base.
Or at least it had been.
Imogene’s heart sank as she took in the destroyed vehicles littering the valley floor. On the ridge, a pair of railgun turrets lay in ruins. Two walls of the garage had collapsed, leaving the roof crumpled in on whatever might remain inside. Once sleek and silver, the dome’s walls gaped with countless holes, some smooth and circular left by kinetic energy rounds, others bearing the jagged edges and charring of high explosives.
The silence lay heavy as they stared down at the ruined base. Finally, Lauren gave a dismissive snort. “So this is our last, best hope, huh Jack? Not much to look at.”
Alexei turned to the white-suited wolf. “There must be other bases nearby, right?”
“No.” Jack sagged visibly, his voice wooden. “There’s nothing.”
Pulling her eyes away from the scene below, Imogene looked over at them. “It might not be as bad as it looks. There’s bound to be tunnels under the dome. They might be okay. We should hurry while there’s still some light.” She began picking her way down the steep slope into the valley.
Their way took them past one of the abandoned vehicles, and Imogene spared it a lingering glance. It was a Fire Ant IFV—the PAF answer to the Paladin—and seemed largely intact. One tread had been torn free, and its protective skirt was nowhere to be seen, but that looked to be the extent of the damage.
But right now she was more concerned with the base. Up close, the destruction looked even worse. Some of the gashes cut clear through all four floors, letting her see into the shattered interior. No light came from the surviving windows, and her comm hails continued to go unanswered.
An airlock pierced the side of the dome nearest them, but as they drew closer a deep dent in the door came into view. First Bruce, then Bruce and Alexei together struggled to force it open.
“Bloody thing’s jammed,” Bruce growled after a third attempt. “We’re gonna have to get a lever.”
Imogene looked up from a jagged gap she’d been studying. “You know, we could just crawl in through one of these holes. It’s not like there’s any atmosphere left for the lock to protect.”
Bruce turned to face the nearest ground-level opening. “Yeah? Some of that stuff looks pretty sharp. We’d have to leave Jack outside or risk cutting his suit.”
She shrugged. “Someone needs to keep an eye on the PAF anyway. They’ve played it straight so far, but I don’t like the idea of them crawling around in there with us.”
“Are you okay with that, Jack?” Bruce asked.
The wolf snorted. “Do I have a choice? You go explore. We can figure out how to get me inside later.”
“Okay. We’ll try to keep it quick.” Bruce took two bounding steps over to the hole and bent to peer inside. “I guess this one’s as good as any. Hold my rifle till I’m through the worst of it.” He unslung the weapon and passed it to Imogene.
She watched the stag ease his way into the cavity, then handed both his rifle and hers through to him. She ducked to follow him. The low opening forced her to hands and knees, and metal scraped against her backpack. Then she was through and into a dark space filled with broken furniture and twisted beams from a collapsed wall. She turned on her headlamp before accepting her rifle back from Bruce.
Lauren and Alexei followed, and the four set off into the ravaged base.
The rooms deeper inside had suffered less damage, but none showed any sign of survivors. Both power and atmosphere were gone, leaving the dome a broken shell. Bodies lay mixed in with the debris, though mercifully fewer than Imogene had dreaded. Either the base had been thinly staffed, or the bulk of its personnel were elsewhere when the attack came.
At the center of the dome they found a stairwell beside an inactive freight lift. The emergency door that should have protected the stairway had jammed halfway down, giving easy access.
Alexei cast his headlamp between the two sets of lithcrete stairs. “Up or down?”
“Down, I think.” Bruce ducked under the door to join them. “The upper levels are probably even worse.”
After three flights, the stairs ended, letting out into a small lobby. The freight lift’s open door faced a heavy armored portal, which was closed. Alexei moved to the emergency airlock beside the sealed blast door.
“Hey, this one’s got power!” He thumbed the green-glowing open button. The door slid aside, and he stepped into the tiny compartment beyond.
“Wait!” Bruce stopped him before he could close the door. “Let someone in with you so we only have to cycle it twice. No point wasting whatever power is left.”
Imogene tensed at the thought of getting stuck in a powerless airlock, and made sure there were manual valves and latches before crowding in next to Alexei.
The airlock closed, and she smiled at the welcoming hiss of air flooding in around them. They stepped out on the other side of the blast door, into a dim corridor. The glow panels pulsed at their lowest setting, and shadows brooded at the corridor’s far end.
Imogene didn’t care. For the first time in nearly a week, her suit’s sensors showed a full atmosphere outside. She cracked open her visor, letting in a puff of cool air. It reeked of burnt electronics and felt oddly moist and heavy, but she breathed deep regardless.
Beside her, Alexei opened his faceplate, and his pink nose twitched. “It stinks in here.”
“Maybe.” Imogene filled her lungs again. “I see you’re not closing your visor again, though.”
“No. It’s okay, I guess.”
Behind them, Bruce and Lauren stepped out of the airlock. The stag flipped up his visor and took a deep breath of his own.
“Gods, that feels good!” He reached up to rub his wide nose with one hand, then glanced at the glow panels. “And power, too. Good.”
Lauren shook her head. “Life support’s down. Listen.”
Everyone fell quiet, and Imogene strained her ears. Only the soft plink of dripping water broke the silence. Without the distant whirring growl of a ventilation system, this place might be little more than a tomb.
An echoing metallic clank made her jump. She spun around, unable to tell where it came from.
“What was that?” Alexei’s whiskers twitched, and he unslung his rifle.
“Someone else must be down here.” Bruce cupped his hands around his mouth and called out. “Hello? Is someone there?”
Another clank answered, followed by the hastily retreating click of claws against the cement floor.
Lauren hissed. “Great. Now they know we’re coming.”
Bruce shot her a dirty look. “They’re probably on our side.” He raised his hands again. “Hello! You can come out. We’re UNA; we won’t hurt you.”
They waited tensely, but the only reply was the slow drip of water.
Finally, Bruce sighed. “Well, that didn’t work. We better go find whoever it is before they get the bright idea to attack us.” He took point, edging cautiously down the shadowed corridor.
The one unlocked door they passed opened onto a second stairwell, this one leading only down. The dripping sound came from the darkness below, along with a stronger waft of burnt wiring and the musty smell of wet lithcrete.
Imogene’s headlamp sparked rainbows off the turbid water filling the stairwell, and she backed quickly away. The scent of charred electronics changed to the black reek of burning fuel oil, and old memories of cold and darkness and fear crawled across her skin.
“Flooded,” Bruce said. “Save it for later.”
Or for never. Imogene forced herself to take another look. The oily surface glowered back at her, but remained smooth and still. Not rising. Not a threat.
“Yeah.” She swallowed hard and backed out into the corridor.
A few dozen metres and a handful of locked doors later, the corridor ended in a junction. Two branches curved away to the left and right, following the outline of the dome above.
Standing in the junction, Bruce repeated his hail. “Hello? We don’t want to hurt anyone. We’re UNA.”
“How do we know you’re telling the truth?” An angry voice came from somewhere down the left-hand corridor.
“I guess you don’t,” Bruce said. “Why don’t you come on out, and you can see for yourselves?”
A whispered conference echoed down the passage, then the voice called again. “All right, but you come to us. And no weapons or funny business!”
Alexei nudged Bruce forward. “They’re your friends. You go first.”
“I was going to anyway.” He handed his rifle to Imogene. “You all stay here. Don’t want to crowd them.” He turned back to the left branch and walked slowly, hands held out from his sides and palms forward.
He passed two open doorways before the angry voice stopped him. “That’s close enough. Now turn around so we can see your rank tabs and backpack.”
Bruce did as he was told, spinning slowly in place and finally coming back around to face the doorway.
“That’s a UNA suit all right. He must be okay,” a new, deeper voice spoke.
“Yeah, I s’pose so,” the first voice admitted. Its owner, a short, plump raccoon, stepped into the corridor’s dim light. Gray camo fatigues marked him as infantry, and he held an assault rifle.
Another figure followed, this one a massive brown bear. He stood at least two metres tall, and his bulky frame pulled the material of his blue coveralls tight whenever he moved.
The raccoon stepped up to Bruce and offered his right hand. “Sorry about that. We had to shoot some leftover PAF buggers who got inside earlier. Can’t be too careful.”
Imogene grimaced. Had those “leftover” soldiers been trying to attack, or surrender? Either way, she hoped the Borda survivors would be more tolerant of PAF who were already prisoners.
Bruce took the raccoon’s hand and shook it. “No, I don’t suppose you can. What’s the situation here?”
“Looking up, now that you’re here.” The raccoon released his hand and stepped back. “We were starting to think nobody was coming. You are the relief party, aren’t you?” He looked hopefully up at Bruce, then over to where Imogene and the rest had joined them.
Silence filled the corridor.
“Ah, no,” Bruce said. “We just spent the last four days walking here from Santbech. We were hoping you hadn’t been hit, too.”
The raccoon’s bushy tail went limp. “You mean you aren’t here to help?”
Bruce spread his hands. “We’ll do what we can.”
“Right.” The raccoon’s lips twisted. “Can’t ask more than that. I’m Private Scott Kyles, by the way, and this is Aaron Donne.” He gestured to the brown bear. “There are a few others, but you can meet them later.”
Bruce introduced himself and his companions. “And we’ve got three more waiting outside. One’s in an emergency suit, and we didn’t want him to cut it coming in though the wreckage. Do you have a cutting torch or something we can borrow?”
The bear nodded, massive head rising and falling like the tide. “We have tools, yeah. Let me get my suit and a cutter, and I’ll give you a hand.” He turned without waiting for a reply and lumbered off.
They watched him go, then Scott looked back around at the others. “Aaron’s the only mechanic we have left. He’ll take good care of you.”
After a moment, Imogene cleared her throat. “We noticed your air supply isn’t working. Do you know if it’s repairable?”
“The equipment’s fine,” Scott said. “Aaron just turned it off to save power.”
“Then the power plant’s in trouble?” She glanced up at the dim glow panels with new concern.
He sighed heavily. “You could say that. It’s chin-deep in what’s left of our fresh water supply. Most of the reserve power cells were down there too, so we’re turning off everything we can.”
“How much is left?”
“Maybe twenty percent. Aaron said it should hold for a week at the rate we’re going.” He licked his lips nervously. “That should be long enough for help to get here.”
“I hope so.” Imogene’s frown deepened. “At least we have time to come up with a plan. That’s something.”
Scott’s small round ears folded, and he blinked. “You think they might not come?”
She shook her head reflexively. “Someone will come.” That was a given. The UNA Armed Forces didn’t leave their people to die. “It’s how soon they come I’m worried about. Everything’s gone to hell, and it might be a while before anyone thinks to pick up the pieces.”
Beside her, Bruce nodded. “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”
Scott’s brown eyes flicked up at him, then back to Imogene. “I guess you guys have a better idea of the big picture. We’ve been out of touch for a while now. You said they hit Santbech too? How bad was it?”
“Bad.” Bruce didn’t mince words. “They got enough annihilation bombs into the crater to seal the base. I’m not sure who held the field, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the PAF are moving in sappers to blow up whatever’s left underground.”
An uncomfortable silence fell and lasted until Aaron returned. The grizzly now wore a tech’s lightly armored and sky-blue pressure suit. He had a compressed gas cylinder tucked under one arm, and the bulky power supply of a portable plasma cutter dangled from his other hand.
Imogene and Bruce accompanied him up into the airless dome.
“All right then, where did you come in?” Aaron peered along the corridors radiating out from the stairwell.
“Couldn’t we just cut the latches off the outer airlock?” Imogene suggested. “That would be a lot faster than clearing out the mess we came though.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to mess up the doors any worse than they are. Airlocks are fiddly and expensive. Just pick whatever hole you think is best and I’ll clean it up for you.”
Imogene shook her head in bemusement. She might not have been an engineer, but the dome was clearly a write off. Worrying about a few door latches seemed like trying not to scratch a vehicle’s paint while dragging it to the scrap yard.
He was the one with the cutter, though, so they led him back to where they’d entered. The final chamber looked even worse after visiting the intact lower level. Part of the ceiling had collapsed, tearing a goodly amount of one wall in with it. Beams and wall panels filled the room, jumbled with crushed and twisted office furniture.
Aaron surveyed the damage. “Not bad, considering. How ’bout you two clear out as much of the loose stuff as you can, and I’ll start cutting.”
“Anything we can help with from outside?” Jack’s voice came over the comm.
“I don’t think so.” Aaron set down the plasma cutter and began attaching the gas cylinder. “It’s pretty cramped in here, ’specially if you’re in a thin suit. Just sit tight.”
He made short work of sectioning the collapsed roof and wall debris, then moved on to smoothing and enlarging the hole in the dome itself. When he’d finished, the jagged rent they’d crawled through was replaced by a low, lopsided arch.
Bruce tossed the last piece of scrap aside with a satisfied grunt. “Okay, Jack. Send the other two ahead so we can all get back inside.”
There was a short delay, then Ming-Xue ducked in through the opening. Omar followed close behind, while Jack trailed at a careful distance.
Aaron glanced up from disassembling the cutter, then did a double take. “What the—? You didn’t say they were PAF!” He scrambled away from them and cast an accusing glare at Imogene and Bruce.
“It’s okay,” Imogene raised her hands in a calming gesture. “They’re our prisoners. We picked them up in the hills a few dozen klicks west of here.”
Looking back at the newcomers, Aaron growled. “Why in blazes didn’t you just shoot them? What good are they to us here?”
Imogene blinked. They weren’t much good, really. Not if sentient lives were counted like machine parts, to be kept or discarded by sheer practicality.
But people weren’t machines.
Before she could figure out how to explain that, Bruce sighed. “I don’t know, but they are here. There must be a storeroom or something down below, right? Lock them up and we’ll worry about it later.”
“You realize they’re the ones who did this?” Aaron waved to indicate the ruined dome. “The others are not going to like this. Hell, I don’t know if I like it!”
“What are we supposed to do then?” Bruce asked. “Let them go? Start killing unarmed prisoners? I’m open to suggestions.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Aaron said darkly. “No one’s gonna notice a few more dead pandas.”
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-two, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the cover art. Hmm...
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