MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Imogene’s dream of flooded fallout shelters and choking smoke seemed to have taken a night off, and while she wasn’t exactly chipper, the next day found her ready to get started repairing the crawler.
That positive outlook didn’t last long; her lack of mechanical skills left her feeling rather useless. Mostly she just held spare tools or pointed a hand light and tried to stay out of the others’ way.
After a good deal of hammering and cursing, the warped running wheel came free. Then they moved on to stripping the other Fire Ant for parts. Alexei’s pestering of Mike and his crew was the only experience any of them had working on treaded vehicles, and even with the illustrated field manual it took considerable trial and error—and yet more cursing—to first release the tension-keeping sprocket, then unlink the tread.
A new wave of meteoroids falling at steep enough angles to enter the crater drove them back inside, and they ate lunch while waiting for the storm to pass.
In what Imogene took as a hopeful sign, Jack tagged along when they went back out. He helped haul parts between the crawlers, then joined Imogene on “Here, hold this” duty. The job didn’t really need five people, and after a time he left them to carry on.
They’d almost replaced the first running wheel before hitting a snag. Imogene didn’t fully understand the problem, but there was apparently some spring-loaded fastener Aaron couldn’t force with the tools at hand. He sent her inside after more tools while he moved on to the next wheel.
Circling around the dome to their rough entrance, she caught sight of Jack’s off-white suit beside the silver wall. He’d leaned back against the dome, gazing at the dark sky, and didn’t seem to notice her coming up beside him.
“I thought you went back inside,” she half-asked.
The wolf startled and glanced down. “No, just looking at the stars.” He spoke slowly, as if lost in thought. “They’re so bright and perfect. Whatever happens, they just keep on shining. It’s...comforting, somehow.”
Imogene looked up. “They are very pretty.”
“Hmm.” He turned his gaze back to the dark sky.
He fell silent then, and Imogene was about to go inside when he spoke once more. “Are there really any gods out there, do you think?”
“I don’t know.” Her gaze slipped from the sky down to the dead gray mountains. His question struck too near the dark thoughts she’d been burying with hard work and pragmatism. “Sometimes it’s nice to think so, but with everything that’s happened...I don’t know.”
Jack didn’t answer right away, and when he did, his voice took on a bitter note. “We never can, can we? Just blunder from mistake to mistake, hoping it all means something and will fall out right in the end. That’s all any of us ever do.”
“Good things happen too.” Imogene wasn’t sure she believed that right now, but said it anyway. “Good things happen, and there’s always a chance things will work out.”
“Maybe.” He sounded about as convinced as she felt. “And the stars will keep burning either way. Like I said, comforting.”
They gazed upwards in silence, then Jack spoke again. “I’ve been watching Earth, too. Do you think the clouds might be clearing, just a little?”
Imogene let her eyes center on the charcoal gray disc she’d been avoiding. If anything, it looked worse to her, the dark bands thicker and more pronounced across the leaden clouds.
Slowly, she shook her head. “No. Not really.”
“Yeah.” Jack sighed. “Neither do I.”
He didn’t speak again, and she left a few minutes later. With two more wheels to fix, Aaron didn’t need the tools in any hurry, but there was no sense keeping him waiting. She passed Jack again on her way out. He didn’t say anything, and she left him to continue his star gazing.
* * *
“That should do it.” Aaron gave the last lock-nut a final twist several hours later. “Let go of the tension-keeper and see if anything falls apart.”
At the other end of the vehicle, Imogene and Bruce eased up on the pry bar wedged between the tension-keeper and the chassis. The large sprocket they’d been holding back slid upwards, taking the slack out of the new tread and pulling it taut.
Nodding to himself, Aaron surveyed their work. “Looks good.” He turned to Alexei. “Why don’t you get inside and give it some power. If it’s still good, then you can give us a ride back.”
“Will do.” The rabbit sounded eager, and wasted no time climbing into the small airlock.
Both Imogene and Bruce backed hastily away from the crawler.
“Uh, Aaron, you might want to move back a little. Finesse isn’t one of his strong points,” Bruce cautioned him.
“I can still hear you,” Alexei’s disembodied voice cut in. “And I’ll be careful. Is everybody clear out there?”
Aaron moved back several metres, then gave the okay.
There was no sound to indicate Alexei had started the engine. The crawler rocked slightly, then the repaired tread began to creep around its serpentine track. At Aaron’s request, he ramped up the speed, and the individual cleats became a blur.
“Okay!” Aaron called out. “Slow down and give it some juice on the other side.”
The Fire Ant lurched, the motion from its other tread causing the vehicle to pivot until the repaired tread caught hold on the sides of their trench. The whole crawler pitched forward, leaving behind the tangle of struts they’d stuffed under it for support. Alexei brought the vehicle to a stop and waited while the others climbed inside.
“Where to, fellas?” He poked his head down from the control turret and gave a playful flick of his whiskers.
Bruce chuckled. “Just back to the dome please, driver. We’ve got dinner reservations it’d be a shame to miss.”
“Right then, I’ll step on it. Hold on to your tails!” Alexei vanished back into the turret and set them into motion. All kidding aside, he took things slow and careful, never going much faster than a brisk walk.
“Huh. Looks like Jack’s outside waiting for us,” Alexei said as they neared their destination. “Anyone know how to turn on the comms so we can say hello?”
Imogene frowned. She hadn’t expected the wolf to still be outside. “Try your suit comm?” she suggested. “This thing would only talk PAF anyway.”
“Good idea.” He paused for a moment, then raised his voice. “Hey, Jack. You reading? We’ve got the crawler up and purring. Just stay where you are, and I’ll try not to run you over.”
Jack didn’t respond.
Alexei snorted. “Probably turned off his comm and fell asleep. Let me get us parked and we’ll go wake him up.” He pulled the crawler within a half-dozen metres of the entrance, then killed the engine.
Imogene stepped down from the airlock and looked over at Jack. He was right where she’d left him, leaned back against the smooth silver dome. Drawing closer, something about him seemed different, but she couldn’t tell what.
Then it clicked.
His normally clear fishbowl helmet was opaque. Not only that, she realized with a sickening jolt, it sat loose on his shoulders. The collar seal had been disengaged.
Imogene’s stomach knotted, and she stumbled to an uncertain stop. “No,” she whispered. “Not like this.”
“What? What is it?” The others were out of the airlock now, crowding around her.
“He, he’s...” She couldn’t make herself say it.
Bruce inhaled sharply. “Oh gods.” He stepped forward and locked the helmet back into place.
It was far too late. They all knew that. Ten seconds to lose consciousness, maybe another ninety before heart failure. He might even have been dead when Imogene passed him on her way back out to the crawler. She didn’t think his helmet had been frosted over then, but how long would that take? It was solid white now, a thick layer of ice crystals hiding whatever his last expression might have been.
“Give me a hand, would you?” Bruce looked back at the others. “The least we can do is take him inside.”
Aaron and Alexei silently helped carry Jack’s body into the dome. There was an office a few doors down the corridor, and they laid him gently atop its desk.
“Why would he do that?” Alexei glanced back and forth between his companions.
“I don’t know,” Bruce said. “He was a little down, we all are, but this...”
Imogene watched from the corridor. Her conversation with the wolf played over again in her mind. She’d never known anyone who killed themselves, much less been the last person they talked to. She didn’t know what to think or feel, apart from horrible. A mass of knots twisted in her stomach, growing ever tighter. It took everything she had to stay on her hooves and follow along behind the others.
No one spoke as they tromped through the airless dome, then down the bleak lithcrete stairs to the airlock. Aaron and Alexei went through first, leaving Imogene and Bruce to wait at the foot of the stairs.
The stag reached over to squeeze her gauntleted hand. “Are you okay?”
Were any of them okay? Really? She wasn’t sure anymore, but that wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
“Yeah.” She looked into his reflective faceplate and gave a return squeeze. “I’ll be all right.”
She kept quiet as they changed out of their armor and headed to the defacto dining room. Scott and a few others were there, along with Lauren.
The lynx sat hunched over her electronics, and glanced up briefly. “So, how are things outside?”
“Jack’s dead,” Bruce said flatly. “Suicide.”
Lauren looked up again and blinked, then her muzzle twisted and she flicked her ears. “Unfortunate. Can’t say I’m surprised, though. What about the crawler?”
“Gods’ sake! The man’s dead, and all you can do is ask about the crawler?” Bruce’s long ears laid back against his skull.
“What do you want?” Her tone remained calm. “He’s dead. There’s nothing I can do about that. If we all want to stay alive, we need to keep focused on repairing the base.”
Bruce’s jaw tightened, and his expression darkened further.
Imogene stepped up beside him and put a hand on his elbow. Whether she meant it in restraint or support she wasn’t sure.
He gave Lauren a hard stare, then turned away.
Alexei spoke up into the silence. “We did get the crawler running. It’s parked outside.”
Lauren took a deep breath. “That’s good. Thank you, Alexei.” She looked over to Aaron. “You can start recharging the power reserves then, right?”
“It’s not quite that simple.” The bear ran a hand over his brown headfur. “Crawlers run mostly on low voltage three-phase, and that’s not what we need. We had a converter that will handle it, but it’s down in the power plant.”
“Can you find it and bring it up here?” Lauren asked.
“Yeah. It’s built into the other equipment, though, and underwater now. It’ll take some work.”
Imogene suppressed a shudder. She didn’t envy Aaron having to wade down into that watery darkness. Not one little bit.
“Tomorrow then.” Lauren glanced down at her comm boards. “I should be ready to put all this back together by then too, and hopefully we can get an idea of how long before help arrives.”
Bruce snorted. He still looked angry, but took it out on a carton of field rations, roughly tearing through the cardboard and pulling loose one of the plastic trays.
Selecting her own meal less aggressively, Imogene sat beside him. Her stomach had settled somewhat, but her appetite was gone. She only toyed with the food. After Bruce finished, the two of them checked on the prisoners, then retired to their shabby quarters.
* * *
The others were gone when Imogene awoke. Tugging absently at her sleep-rumpled uniform, she trotted towards the dining room. She hadn’t missed them by much. Bruce, Alexei and Lauren were still peeling the wrappers from their field rations.
Bruce gave her a tight smile and passed her an unopened tray.
From his seat farther back, Aaron watched them eat, then cleared his throat. “Well, I guess we’re all here.” He paused, then seeing he had their attention, went on. “I was thinking more about it, and I’m gonna need some help. All the power is out downstairs—obviously—so I need someone to hold a hand light, and probably one more to help get everything untangled.”
Lauren nodded. “I could use a hand hauling all this equipment back upstairs too.” She turned to Alexei. “You wouldn’t mind, right?”
“Sure.” He flicked an ear in agreement. “Better than getting wet.”
Aaron looked over at Imogene and Bruce. “Looks like the three of us then.”
Imogene swallowed hard. Just the thought of descending into the flooded power plant filled her veins with ice water. She could refuse, but what would Bruce and the others think of her? Afraid of a little water. She forced her ears up from their fold, and tried to steady her nerves. She’d done okay on the sewer course in Basic. It wasn’t fun, but she’d kept it together.
She could do this.
“All right.” She projected confidence into her tone. “We can use our suits, though, right? Then we’ll have lights built-in and we can stay dry.”
Lauren snorted. “Air-tight’s not the same as waterproof. I’m sure it’d keep you dry, but what about the electronics? Are they all rated for submersion?”
Imogene frowned. “I don’t know.”
“Neither do I. But if they fry, what are you going to do next time we have to go outside? Hold your breath?”
“Okay, so it’s not a good idea.” Imogene crossed her arms over her chest.
Lauren just smirked and went back to eating.
Forcing herself to do likewise, Imogene methodically cleared her tray. Even eating slowly, it didn’t take nearly long enough, and then there was no more excuse to delay. With a growing sense of dread, she followed Bruce and Aaron out into the corridor.
Aaron already had his tools gathered in the stairwell, along with a hand light for each of them. While the grizzly futzed over his equipment, Imogene took a light and pointed it down the stairs. She counted seven steps before the stairway disappeared beneath the dark, oily-looking water. Her pulse quickened, but she forced herself down to the last dry step, then knelt to peer along the surface. Maybe an arm’s length of open space separated the water and the lower level’s ceiling. Grimacing to herself, she climbed back up to the landing.
“How does it look?” Bruce gave her an encouraging smile.
He chuckled. “I imagined that.” He looked down at Aaron. “Any risk with all that water and electricity?”
“Nah.” Aaron hitched his shoulders. “I disconnected the main lines, and everything else has either already shorted or is self-contained enough to ignore.” He straightened from his tools and began unfastening his blue coveralls. “Might want to leave your fatigues here. No point getting everything wet.”
Imogene shed her outer garments along with Bruce, then followed Aaron down into the water.
With each step, the cold liquid soaked into Imogene’s fur. Her lungs tightened. By the time they reached the bottom it was up to her armpits. A shudder rippled from her ears all the way to her tail. The cold, the flickering light cast by hand lamps, the smell of wet fur and lithcrete—
She concentrated on breathing regularly and fought to remain calm. There was no danger. It was just water, and if it became too much, all she had to do was turn around and walk back up the stairs. Still focused on her breathing, she trailed behind the others.
This level was smaller that the one above, and despite the water they soon arrived at their destination. Dials and readouts, both digital and analog, covered the small equipment room’s walls, and a double row of electrical cabinets took up most of the floor. Everything was painted a pale, industrial green, except the mess of multicolored conduits suspended from the ceiling.
Aaron looked back over his shoulder. “The bit we need is in the last enclosure on the left, and unfortunately it’s on the bottom rack.”
Bruce waded over to the indicated cabinet. “We’ll deal with it, I guess. How well is it attached?”
“Better than I’d like.” Aaron’s ears flattened. “Ten or twenty set screws and a bunch of cables and conduit.” He caught up with Bruce, then unlatched the cabinet. A palpable wave of burnt electronics stench wafted out.
“Phew!” Bruce backed away.
“Yeah.” Aaron shook his head glumly. “Hopefully the converter wasn’t running when it flooded.” He set his tools down atop the cabinet. “Anyhow, I was thinking one of you could take the lights while the other helps me down below.”
Bruce glanced at Imogene. “I can do the underwater bit, unless you’d rather?”
Thank the gods he was here to spare her from that. She managed a shaky smile. “No, that’s okay. Holding lights is a specialty of mine.”
He smiled back and passed her his light, then turned to Aaron. “Looks like I’m your stag. Any special plan?”
“Take a good long breath and grab a screwdriver. If you get started on the set screws, I’ll see about the electrical connections. I’ll probably need help with some of the conduits.”
Nodding, Bruce did as the bear suggested.
Aaron followed a moment later, leaving Imogene to try and position her lights to best effect while giving the others room to work.
After about thirty seconds, Bruce resurfaced and shook the water from his eyes. “Gods, that’s cold!” He took several deep breaths, then ducked back under the surface.
They settled into a rhythm, thirty or forty seconds working, then about twice that recovering for the next attempt.
Despite her bravado, holding a hand light did little to distract Imogene from her growing unease. Her fur wasn’t thick or oily enough to provide much insulation, and the water sucked out her warmth. With it went her last shreds of positive outlook. There was a very real possibility they’d die here. Frozen, asphyxiated, starved to death—the possibilities tumbled through her mind. And what chance of rescue? The Earth was burning. Who would care about a handful of lost soldiers?
Sunken within herself, she barely noticed Bruce or Aaron. If they asked her to move the lights she would comply mechanically, but it hardly seemed to matter. She managed to hold herself together until they finished the job.
Then she fled.
Sometime later Bruce found her, still damp and shivering, huddled behind a desk in one of the main level’s unused offices. Quietly, he approached and set her fatigues down on the desk. “You forgot these. And now would be a really bad time to catch a cold.”
Wiping her nose with the back of one hand, she looked up. “You think it would matter?”
“Of course it matters.” His brows knitted and he knelt beside her. “Why wouldn’t it?”
She sniffled again and shook her head. “We’re all gonna die. Everything’s dying. Victor, the Sergeant, Jack—” Her voice caught roughly. “I, I didn’t know he was gonna kill himself!”
Sliding an arm around her shoulders, he pulled her close. “Nobody did. It’s not your fault.”
“But I talked to him. I told him the clouds weren’t getting any better, and, and they’re not,” she sobbed. “They’re not, and my mother and brother were down there, and, and now—” Her voice failed her. Crying in earnest now, she buried her face in his shoulder and wept.
He just held her, rocking back and forth until the storm of her emotion had run its course.
Finally she pushed away, scrubbing at her sore eyes and nose. The last time she’d shed more than a few bitter tears had been before her father died. He’d held her like this when her little tabby cat had to be put down. Back then his arms had seemed much bigger and stronger than Bruce’s could ever be, but that feeling of safety and protection was the same. Bruce was a medic, just like he’d been. Maybe it came with the profession.
Bruce shifted slightly, and Imogene suddenly felt very awkward. “Sorry about your shirt.” It sounded lame, even to her, but she had to say something.
“Don’t worry about it.” He gave a slightly crooked smile. “It was already filthy.”
Imogene snorted, then caught his warm brown eyes with her own. “Still, thank you.”
“That’s what friends are for. We’ve all got to pull together now, or everything will fall apart.” He raised his eyebrows. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I think so.” Imogene was surprised to realize she actually meant it this time. “Yes, I think I’m gonna be okay.”
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-five, where things fall apart again.
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