MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
*Smoke coiled through empty streets, black snakes flowing on an icy wind. Cold. So very cold. Water dripped from her fur, freezing where it hit the cobblestones, soaking the dead otter’s jacket wrapped around her shoulders. Otter musk and blood and oily choking smoke.
Shadows advanced through the smoke and flames, shouting, shooting, storming closer. Mother’s hand closed like a vise on her own, yanking her back. Back the way they’d come. Metal boots crushed concrete, closer, closer. Faster than her hooves could carry her away. Her heart pounded. The you-nah men—they were coming. Coming to kill her.
Snow turned to gray dust. Thunder split the air and she fell—so much slower than she should. She couldn’t move. Everything floated. She had to run, but fell again and again. The you-nah men were coming. Or the pandas? She couldn’t tell, but knew she had to run. Gray cliffs were burning buildings, and a crater gaped black—stairs falling into darkness.
Mother’s hand again, pulling her down, forcing her into the dark. She fought, sobbing, gasping sooty air. The water was waiting. It would come again, freezing, choking, smothering like smoke. The water would come again. And this time there would be no escape.*
Eyes snapping open, Imogene panted stale air. She started at the shadowy outlines of the storeroom, not quite believing it was real.
But Alexei was snoring. Who’d dream about that?
She ran her fingers over the UNA crest on her fatigues’ shoulder. She was a you-nah man now. And who hunted the hunters? In her sleep-addled state she wasn’t sure. It seemed like things would be better if no one hunted anyone. That was a nice thought. Better than wondering if she had become one of those half-remembered monsters from her childhood.
Pan-Asian, Unified Nations, did it really matter? The UNA had killed Father, and now Mom and Josh were probably dead too—vaporized in a PAF attack if they were lucky, poisoned from both sides’ radiation if they weren’t.
And over what? She had more quarrel with Lauren and Jared than she did with the supposed enemies locked in the storeroom.
Why couldn’t everyone just leave well enough alone?
She held on to that idea of a world where people got along, even as her eyes closed and she drifted back to sleep.
* * *
When Imogene and her comrades arrived for breakfast in the common room, they found Scott already hard at work, rummaging amid the heaped cartons, pulling out ration trays and sorting them by flavor. Imogene grabbed one that claimed to contain scrambled eggs and sat down between Jack and Bruce. Before she could decide what the spongy stuff inside actually tasted like, Aaron arrived.
Lauren set down her half-finished tray and fixed him with yellow, slitted eyes. “What did you find out about the comm center?”
Aaron blinked, but took her directness in stride. “Hard to say. It’s still there, but the upper levels are a mess. Some shrapnel went through the comm room, and gods know what all it hit.”
Lauren pursed her lips. “Did you try turning any of the equipment on?”
“No. We cut power to the dome; there’s a mess of melted wiring up there and it kept tripping the breakers. I can try turning just the comm center back on.”
“Do that.” Lauren glanced at her remaining food. “I’ll be done in a minute, and then you can show me the comms.”
Aaron accepted her command with a firm nod and turned to leave.
Swallowing hastily, Bruce called after him. “Hold up. Why don’t we figure out what everyone should be doing before we run off every which-way?”
The bear turned and stood in the doorway. “Okay. Shoot.”
Bruce frowned, organizing his thoughts. “Well, getting the comms working is a good idea. But failing that, we need to try and help ourselves. There’s plenty of food and water down here, and the depth should keep us safe from meteoroids. If we can get power back for the heating and air recirc, we should be good for at least a couple months—”
Alexei choked. “Months?”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” Bruce said. “Still, power is the important thing right now.”
Shifting to lean against the doorjamb, Aaron nodded slowly. “That’s right, as far as it goes. But the power plant was running when it flooded. The generators are fried, and I can’t fix ’em.”
Imogene looked up at Aaron. “You must have backups? Or some portable generators?”
“Backup’s downstairs too, and tried to kick in right after the mains failed. They’re all toasted. I don’t know about portables—” He turned to where Scott was still reorganizing boxes. “Hey, Scott! Do you know if there are any portable generators tucked away where I wouldn’t have seen them?”
The raccoon pulled his nose out of a crate long enough to give Aaron a disgusted glare. “You think if there were I’d be keeping it to myself?”
“Just asking.” He made a placating gesture, then looked back at Imogene. “That’s a ‘no’ then, I guess.”
She wrinkled her leathery nose in thought. “What about a vehicle’s power plant? Could you tap into one of those and feed it into the base?”
“Probably.” Aaron’s fur rippled as he frowned. “It would depend on the vehicle, assuming any of them are even still working.”
“Should be easy enough to check.” She glanced at Bruce, then Alexei. “You guys up for a little more hiking?”
Alexei shrugged, and Bruce nodded. “That sounds good. Jack, what do you think? Any ideas?”
“Hm?” The wolf looked up from listlessly stirring his food. “No, you go ahead. I’ll...I’ll be here.”
Imogene took in his motionless tail and sagging shoulders. Despite having slept, a weariness filled his brown eyes. The worry she’d felt before flared stronger. The last week had been hell for everyone, but especially him. Now they had some respite, she hoped he could recuperate.
Aaron didn’t notice, or maybe didn’t care. “All right. You might check the railgun turrets, too. I know they pull main power from the base, but I’m not cleared for tactical stuff. They might have backup systems.” He turned to Lauren. “I’ll go get power to the comms back on for you. Won’t be a minute.”
The bear lumbered off, leaving them to finish their breakfast. Then, after re-donning their armor, Bruce, Imogene and Alexei headed outside.
The sun had finally slipped below the horizon, shrouding the small valley in darkness. Amid the stars, Earth hung low in the western sky.
Imogene hadn’t seen it during their eastward trek, hidden as it was behind them. But if she were honest with herself, she knew she’d been avoiding the sight. Now it had caught up with her, and she couldn’t turn away.
Perhaps a third of the way through its month-long cycle, a fat crescent of daylight shone on the lower left side. But this wasn’t the natural mosaic of blue and shining white—rather, a flat gray blanket covering everything. Beyond the day/night terminator, the planet’s disc formed a dark circle against the stars.
Imogene continued to stare, and her eyes adjusted to pick out darker, sooty streaks across the cloud cover. The night side revealed more detail too: a sinister patchwork of red, glowing malignantly in the darkness. She shied away from thinking what might cause whole continents to burn. Simple forest fires couldn’t be so widespread and bright, could they?
Her mother and Josh were down there somewhere, assuming they’d survived. Assuming anyone survived—
Imogene wrenched her gaze away and fixed it on the ground. She needed to concentrate. Worrying about things beyond her control wouldn’t keep her and her friends alive. She had a job to do, and if they wanted to keep breathing, she’d better do it well.
“So, where to first?” Bruce’s voice crackled into her helmet.
Imogene shook her head to clear it.
“The crawler we passed yesterday seemed in pretty good shape.” She looked across the valley to the where the Fire Ant made a fuzzy green block in her night vision. “There were a couple more vehicles by the access road, but I think we should check the garage first. Everything out here was damaged badly enough to abandon; whatever’s in the garage only had a roof fall on it.”
“Makes sense. Let’s get on with it, then.”
On the dome’s southeast side, the garage had been partially hidden during their arrival. Closer now, Imogene decided it was indeed newer than the other buildings. Blocky and painted a uniform dull gray, it contrasted with the almost reflective silver skinned dome. The dozen-metre-long walkway connecting the two was useless now, knocked over and crushed under a Paladin IFV.
Walking up to the abandoned vehicle, Alexei scoffed. “Someone didn’t watch where they were going.” He bent to peer in through a rough opening where the engine maintenance hatch had been. “I’m guessing this one won’t be much use.”
“Yeah,” Imogene said shortly. At least two gray-suited bodies lay jumbled in with the debris, and Alexei’s flippancy bothered her. Shaking her head, she turned to the garage. “How do we get inside? I’m sure the airlock isn’t working.”
Alexei left the Paladin to investigate the ruined walkway. “There’re some gaps in this big enough to crawl through.” He knelt, then slithered headfirst into the rubble.
Imogene stepped forward in time to see the rabbit’s boots disappear down one of the larger rents.
His helmet popped back into view, blinding her with his headlamps. “No problem. It’s pretty open once you’re inside. I’ll go see if I can get into the garage.”
He returned a bit later and crawled out of the rubble. “Nothing. There’s two little buggies, but their flywheels are running down. Hardly worth the trouble to dig ’em out.”
Climbing over the walkway, they completed a loop around the dome and headed north along the access road. The nearest vehicle was another PAF Fire Ant, though in nowhere near as good a condition as the first.
The treads looked okay, but the airlock refused to open, so Alexei climbed in through a gaping hole where the weapons and command turret had been. He reported the engine compartment seemed to be intact, but none of them knew how to test it when the cockpit controls were nothing but melted plastic.
Leaving it as a “maybe”, they continued onwards. A few more crawlers littered the way out of the valley, none warranting more than a brief glance. Holed, twisted, or flat-out blown to bits, they were all useless.
As Aaron suggested, they also checked one of the railgun turrets perched on the valley’s rim. The above-ground portion was in sorry shape, armor deeply scored and access panels blown open. It was also above the sheltering rim of Borda’s crater, and tiny meteoroids peppered Imogene as Bruce and Alexei wriggled inside to confirm there’d never been a backup generator anyhow.
On their return, they circled to inspect the first Fire Ant. As Imogene had noted earlier, one tread was missing and some of the running gear had been damaged. But the vehicle still had power, and whoever left it hadn’t set any security measures. The airlock admitted them without trouble.
That should have been hopeful, but the cramped compartment inside reminded her uncomfortably of the one where Victor and the Sergeant had died. At least there were no bodies. The crew and passengers of this crawler had escaped. Probably just far enough to join the dozens of casualties littering the valley outside.
“Dinky little thing.” Alexei looked around in disgust, then crawled up into the command turret that occupied the vehicle’s rear. There was theoretically room for two, but neither Imogene nor Bruce moved to join him.
Alexei examined the controls, muttering to himself. He switched to the turret’s other seat and gave a satisfied grunt. “I think I’ve got it. You guys ready?” He threw a switch without waiting for an answer.
The engine rumbled to life, sending a gentle thrum through the floor plates and up into Imogene’s boots.
“Hey, it worked!” Alexei laughed. “Want me to drive us back to the base?”
Bruce snorted good naturedly. “With only one tread? You’re welcome to try.”
“Oh. Right.” He shut off the engine and slid down from the turret. “But it does work. That’s more than you can say for anything else in this dump.”
“Indeed.” The stag’s smile faded. “Let’s just hope we can find a really long extension cord.”
* * *
“No,” Aaron said bluntly. “We don’t have a kilometre of electrical cable, and even if we did, the loss at that low of a voltage would be awful.”
Bruce frowned and took another bite of his field rations before answering. “How much cable do we have?”
“That’ll take that kind of load? Maybe sixty metres.”
“Then you’re saying we need to get the crawler right up to the front door?”
Aaron hitched his massive shoulders. “Pretty much. Or we can just wait. Your friend said the comms looked repairable. If she can fix them, there’s no reason to mess with the crawler.”
“I hope so.” Bruce didn’t sound convinced. “But it won’t hurt to try something else in the meantime. Would you come out and look at it? None of us are mechanic enough to assess the damage.”
The bear’s black nose wrinkled. “If you want. I’ll suit up while you finish eating.”
After he left, Imogene glanced over at Bruce. “You didn’t sound very hopeful Lauren can fix the comms.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt she can manage.” He gave a moody flick of his ears. “I’m just not sure there will be anyone on the other end to talk to. You saw what happened to Santbech, and it was a regional headquarters.”
“Yeah.” She poked at her food, then glanced up again. “What if it is that way? Everywhere? What do we do?”
“That’s why I want the Fire Ant operational. I really hope the relief party gets here sooner rather than later, but if it is later, I want to be alive to complain about it.”
Imogene blew out her breath in a snort. Somehow their situation didn’t seem so bleak with Bruce and his dry humor nearby.
They finished eating, then suited up and accompanied Aaron to inspect the Fire Ant.
Most of what Imogene knew about PAF vehicles was how to blow them up, but on the surface at least, the damage didn’t look bad. The protective skirt that should cover the right-hand tread was gone, along with the tread itself. Twisted bits of both littered the area, fanning out in all directions. The many small wheels that ran inside the tread had plowed themselves hub-deep into the dust, and two near the middle were missing.
After several minutes poking around, Aaron straightened. “The tread’s a write off. Shredded. Two running wheels gone, and a third’s been warped. Have to take it off too. The chassis looks kinda crumpled and there are some stress cracks, but it’s hard to tell how bad with everything half-buried like this.”
“Is that stuff we can fix?” Bruce knelt to take a closer look.
“Probably, since we have that other one for parts.” Aaron waved towards the second Fire Ant a klick or so north. “First thing is getting it dug out. We’ve got some shovels back at the base...”
They spent the rest of the “evening” toiling to clear the running gear. Unfortunately, the crawler’s wheels tended to settle deeper into whatever hole they dug. Finally they ran girders scavenged from the garage under the crawler to support it while they continued to dig. That seemed to work, and they cleared the last of the dust before returning to the dome for food and rest.
Lauren had the guts of three different computer modules spread out in the storeroom-cum-dining area, and was poking at them with a data-probe when Imogene and the rest arrived. She set the probe down and stretched before turning to face them.
“Nice of you to join us.” The lynx’s whiskers twitched sardonically. “Did you get your crawler fixed up?”
Bruce shook his head. “It’s dug out now. Aaron said we might get it working tomorrow or the day after.” The stag collected a package of rations and let himself fall onto one of the ubiquitous crates. “What about the comms? Any luck?”
“Sort of. The transceiver took some shrapnel. The emitter and receiver arrays are okay, but the controllers and decoding boards are messed up.” A frown crept across her face, then she gave a decisive jerk of her chin. “Nothing I can’t fix.”
“Glad to hear that,” Bruce said. “I’ll let you get back to it.”
About half a meal later, Scott appeared in the doorway. He carried some unidentifiable piece of equipment that trailed a rainbow of wires. “Is this the bit you wanted?” His white eyebrows arched hopefully.
Lauren took the device from him and peered at it before nodding. “It is. Go see if you can find any more. I need at least three.”
“Right.” The raccoon turned smartly and trotted off.
Imogene watched him leave. “He certainly seems more...enthusiastic.”
“He’s been helping me the last couple hours,” Lauren said. “To tell the truth, I think he’s kind of glad to have someone tell him what to do.” She cast Imogene a sidelong glance. “I even had him take your PAF buddies some lunch since you forgot.”
Imogene winced. She wasn’t used to having other people to look after, and with the PAF safely tucked away they were easy to forget. “Sorry about that. And thanks for taking care of it.”
The lynx flicked her tufted ears and left it at that.
After finishing their meal, Imogene and Bruce made a point of checking on the prisoners. While they were at it, she also changed out the twenty-liter bucket that served the PAF as a latrine. She would have felt worse about the primitive setup, but with the water system broken, the rest of them were making do with the same.
Thinking about it more, Imogene grew miffed that Lauren sent Scott to check the prisoners alone. Nothing had happened, she supposed, so it wasn’t worth making an issue over. Still, it seemed almost as if Lauren were trying to provoke an incident.
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-four, with post-apocalyptic scavenging and a snoring rabbit.
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