MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Imogene and Bruce herded their prisoners down the stairs. Imogene went through the airlock first and stepped out to find Lauren and Alexei waiting. Both still wore their much abused armor, although Alexei had discarded his helmet somewhere.
“Took you long enough.” Lauren’s whiskers twitched. “I had Scott find some accommodations for our...guests. It’s all ready.”
The tone she put on guests made Imogene’s ears want to lay back, but she flipped up her visor and gave a tight smile. “Good thinking. Thanks.”
Ming-Xue and Omar were next through the airlock. The shorter Ming-Xue snapped her faceplate open as soon as they emerged, taking a deep, appreciative breath of the open air. Imogene couldn’t tell if her delicate white-furred features were those of a mouse or a rat. Ming-Xue saw everyone watching her and looked down self-consciously.
Omar stepped up beside her, but kept his visor down.
The airlock cycled again, letting in Bruce and Jack. Lauren glanced at them, then strode off down the dusky corridor. “Come on. The sooner you get them settled, the sooner we can have some real food and some sleep.”
Alexei trotted along beside her, and Bruce waved the two prisoners to precede Imogene and himself.
At the end of the passage they turned right, following the curving outer corridor. Most of the doors they passed were on the inner side of the passage, but a few pitch-black tunnels radiated out through the dome’s foundations. Probably access passages to the fuel depot’s storage bunkers.
After completing close to a quarter circuit, Lauren took them into a cluttered storeroom. “There’s a smaller room at the back we cleared all the stuff out of.” She thrust her muzzle at a door nearly hidden behind a shelving unit. “I figure we can keep their suits and stuff out here, and them inside.”
“Sounds good.” Bruce turned to the prisoners. “You heard her. Leave your armor on the shelf over there. You have some fatigues with you?”
Ming-Xue nodded. “In our packs, yes. But I will need help removing my armor.” She shifted her broken wrist.
“Right.” Bruce yanked off his gauntlets and threw them onto a shelf. Imogene could tell the anger in his voice was directed at himself for forgetting the rat’s injury, but Ming-Xue shrank back against the piled crates.
Bruce looked at Omar. “You first then, so you can help her. I don’t know how PAF suits fit together.”
Reluctantly, Omar removed his helmet, revealing himself to be a rabbit with dusty brown fur and dark eyes. His ears were long and sparsely furred, reminding Imogene of the wild desert hares that had descended each night to feast on the watered lawns at the base in Ankara.
He shed the remainder of his armor and dug into his pack in search of clothing.
“Here now, let me see that!” Lauren snatched the mass of fabric he pulled forth. “Don’t want you sneaking anything else in there with you.” She shook out the garments to reveal an emerald green fatigue jacket and trousers, both trimmed with yellow stripes along the seams and cuffs. No incriminating weapons clattered to the floor, and Lauren thrust the clothing back at its owner.
The brown hare clothed himself, then started unfastening Ming-Xue’s armor. They saved her injured arm for last. A piercing squeak split Ming-Xue’s tight-clenched lips, and Imogene’s stomach lurched in sympathy. She jerked her gaze away before the metal gauntlet came free.
A few more muffled exclamations came from the white rat while Bruce examined her wrist.
Screwing up her courage, Imogene glanced back in time to see him release Ming-Xue and nod.
“It’s definitely broken. I’m not good enough to say for sure, but I’d guess not badly. I’m gonna immobilize it.” He swathed her hand and arm in pale yellow thermoset bandages, then ran a UV light over his work to fuse and harden the plastic.
When he was done, Ming-Xue cradled the cast against her middle. She looked up at him, lips pricking into a pained smile. “Thank you. I am glad you are willing to help us.”
Bruce hunched his shoulders. “Yeah. Try not to use the arm much, okay?”
She nodded and shuffled to join Omar in the inner storeroom.
Once the makeshift prison’s door was locked behind them, Bruce heaved a long sigh. “Well, that’s one less thing to worry about.” His tired brown eyes drifted closed for a moment, then popped open. “But our mousey friend isn’t the only one who took a hard knock.” He cast the dent in Imogene’s armor a significant glance. “You’ve been favoring that side. I want to feel your chest.”
Before Imogene could raise her hand to the dent and the dull ache behind it, Lauren snorted. The silver feline’s whiskers slicked back and her muzzle twisted in disgust. “Much as I’d love to stay and watch, I’m going for some chow. Happy groping.”
She spun and paced out with Alexei at her heels.
Imogene’s cheeks grew hot. That’s not what he’d meant. She shot the stag a quick look.
He rolled his eyes, then made a point of turning his back, which was more than anyone usually bothered to do in their close living conditions. His courtesy only made her blush harder, and she cursed Lauren for complicating what should have been a simple affair.
Under the suit, her brown and cream fur stuck up in a matted mess. Fully half of it lay against the nap, stiff and wiry with dried sweat. She brushed at it with her hands, but made little progress. A whiff of trapped body odor reached her, and she winced before pulling on her last—and now only—set of fatigues.
“All right.” She settled down on a crate and pulled up her gray camo patterned jacket, holding the hem just below her breasts.
Bruce knelt beside her, smoothing back her fur to expose the bruised flesh beneath. His firm fingers sliding over her midriff sent an electric tingle up her spine. The feather-light caress crept upward, spreading delicious warmth towards—
She clamped down hard on her feelings.
That wasn’t why he was touching her. He was a medic, and she was his patient. That was all. It was bad enough she’d forced her misinterpretations onto Victor’s friendliness; she wasn’t going to do the same thing with Bruce.
“How is it?” She kept her tone as casual as her writhing emotions would allow.
He slid his hands over her again, feeling her ribs. “Hard to say. There’s some swelling, but that could go either way. Can you describe the pain? Anything sharp or grating, especially when you breathe?”
She filled her lungs, concentrating on the stretchy ache above and left of her belly. “Not really. It’s just sore.”
“Good.” He rocked back and stood. “Probably just a deep bruise, but let me know if anything changes.”
Still fighting down her mixed feelings about his closeness, Imogene straightened her shirt and followed him out of the room.
A quarter turn around the dome’s ring, another storeroom had been converted into a sort of common area, with the crates restacked to serve as tables and chairs. A double handful of dispirited looking people gathered here, including Lauren and Alexei, Jack, and the two survivors they’d met earlier. A few talked quietly amongst themselves, but most were quiet, glancing up only briefly before returning their dull stares to the gray walls and ceiling.
Jack had changed out of his suit into a blue coverall, its too-large folds hanging almost comically from his slender frame. He set aside a half-eaten tray of field rations to greet them.
“More or less.” Bruce took a pair of field rations from an open carton beside the wolf. He passed one to Imogene before letting himself collapse onto a crate.
Imogene sat next to him and pulled the self-heating tab on her rations. Setting the food aside to cook, she took a closer look at the gathered survivors. Their support-branch uniforms made a sort of shabby rainbow: olive green quartermasters, dull red cooks, muddy yellow clerks—all with ears and tails drooping listlessly. Scott the raccoon wore the only combat fatigues, and was the only one who would meet her eyes.
“So,” Scott broke the silence. “What are your plans now? We’ve just been handling things as they come up.” He addressed the question to Bruce.
The stag peeled open his now steaming rations before answering. “Right now I’d like to eat, then get out of this suit and sleep. You guys wouldn’t have a shower down here, would you?”
Scott shook his head. “The water system’s busted anyway.”
“Right.” Bruce sighed. “After that, I don’t know.” He looked sideways at Jack. “But you’re supposed to be in charge, Captain. Any ideas?”
“Not really. My head’s getting better, but concentration’s still flaky. I suppose we ought to see about fixing the power plant.”
Lauren frowned, nodding agreement as she cut in. “What about comms? If we can call to let them know we’re still here, they’ll send a recovery team faster.”
Scott looked over to Aaron.
The bear cleared his throat. “Radio antennas got pulverized—local and satellite. The fiber line was okay before the attack, but all the equipment is up in the dome. Dunno what shape it’s in now.”
Lauren’s lips pulled back from pointed teeth. “The line is the important part. If it and the transceiver are okay, I can work around whatever else may be broken.”
“Hmm,” Aaron said. “I know more about nuts and bolts than bits and bytes, but I can at least go check whether or not the comm center is still there.”
“Good. You do that,” Lauren said. “I’m gonna need some rest before messing with anything technical, so no hurry.”
Aaron rose with a wry chuckle. “Not much else to do around here. I’ll see what I can find.”
Imogene watched him go, then turned her attention back to her meal. She wasn’t entirely sure what it was supposed to be. Some sort of thick stew or a runny casserole. Two smaller compartments held white stuff that might be mashed potatoes and a cake-like object she assumed was dessert. The plastic tray had a detachable spork cast into one edge, which she broke free and put to good use. The rations were a far cry from the meals she’d enjoyed at Santbech or Pons, but after days of nothing but liquids, her stomach greeted it eagerly.
Bruce finished after she did, and used his long tongue to clean out the remaining drops of whatever the runny brown stuff had been. He set the tray down and looked up. “That’s phase one of my plan done. I’m guessing if there’s no showers, there’s no beds either?”
Scott shrugged. “There’s plenty of storerooms. Take your pick.”
“Okay.” Bruce pushed himself up from the crate. “We should be back at it in six, seven hours. If any of you come up with something we can help with, hit us up then.”
The rest of the Pons contingent rose and followed Bruce into the darkened corridor. After they moved out of earshot, Alexei gave a dismissive flick with one ear. “They won’t, you know.”
Imogene arched her brows. “They won’t what?”
“Come up with anything. Did you see the looks on their faces? I’ll lay you odds it was either Scott or Aaron who’ve done everything important since the attack.”
“Hmm,” Imogene hedged. Even if what he said was true, it was hard to blame them. Having your base destroyed and then being trapped in the dark with nothing to do but wait couldn’t be conducive to a positive outlook.
Ahead of them, Bruce peered into a darkened doorway. “This one looks about right.” He flicked on the glow panels, dialing them down to the lowest setting.
Inside, silver crates a metre or more in each dimension formed a cubist’s haphazard dreamscape. Not what she’d normally think of as a good sleeping place, but with the low gravity a padded bunk was more for psychological comfort than physical.
While she looked around, Bruce found a likely pair of crates and started shucking his armor.
Imogene claimed her own section a bit farther from the door. Already in her fatigues, she gave the others a chance to change, then glanced around. “I didn’t think of it, but we should probably bring the PAF some food. Anyone want to give me a hand with that?”
“Why don’t you just get the locals to do it?” Lauren stretched lazily, her claws scraping the crate she lounged on. “They seem pretty eager to please.”
Imogene shook her head. “The less they have to do with each other, the better. I think that tech Aaron was serious about shooting them.”
“Suit yourself.” The lynx flopped down to lay at full length, showing off her fangs in an impressive yawn.
Neither Jack nor Alexei seemed eager to assist, either.
Bruce hefted his rifle with a sigh. “Why not? Let’s get it over with.” He followed her into the corridor, and the two of them retraced their steps, stopping to collect an armful of field rations.
Imogene dumped the rations on a shelf beside the PAF’s discarded armor. She picked two from the pile, then unlocked the inner door and pushed it open.
Bruce hung back, rifle ready in case the prisoners decided to try anything.
Ming-Xue and Omar sat a few metres apart, backs to the far wall. They both looked up, and Omar glowered.
“Brought you some food.” Imogene took two steps, depositing the rations in the middle of the room before retreating again.
Omar only watched her, but Ming-Xue gave a slight smile. “Thank you.” She looked past Imogene, trying to tell who else was with her, then met her gaze once more. “Would you tell us what is going on? Why is the ventilation system dead?”
“We turned it off to save power.” Imogene couldn’t see any harm in telling her that much. “It still works, and we’ll turn it on again when we need to.”
“I see.” The white rat nodded. “It is good the base systems are intact.”
Omar made a rude noise. “If they are saving power, something is broken. I told you: this base is dying.” His gaze darted to Imogene, as if expecting some confirmation or denial.
She didn’t offer either. “Is there anything else you need?”
“Not that you will give us, I think,” Ming-Xue said.
Imogene snorted. “Fair enough.” She backed out through the door, sliding it shut and locking it behind her. She leaned against the door and sighed before turning to face Bruce. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for this.”
The stag re-slung his weapon and gave a low chuckle. “I don’t think I’d like you half as much if you were. Things will work out. We just have to muddle through until they do.”
“And right now, that means rest.” Imogene’s lips quirked into a lopsided smile. “Muddled heads make for poor muddling, or something like that.”
“That they do.” He gave her a friendly pat on her shoulder as they walked back to their quarters. “That they do indeed.”
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-three, in which things start to look up.
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