MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Imogene woke to find the light from the corridor even dimmer than usual. Every second glow panel had been disconnected to save power. Noticeably cooler, the air tasted thick and hung heavy in her lungs. There wasn’t much time before the dying base pulled them down with it.
Her muzzle set in a grim line, she set out in search of the others.
In the common room, Bruce and Aaron groped elbow deep in the disemboweled power converter, testing for water damage. Alexei watched, and Lauren sat to one side, her slim fingers fluttering over a datapad.
Imogene took a field ration and sat. “Any luck with the comms?”
“Some,” Lauren’s yellow eyes flicked up, then back to her screen. “We’re getting through to a routing node near Santbech, but the control software’s been erased. I’m trying to patch something together.”
Encouraged, Imogene nodded and took a bite of her unsavory-looking steak and eggs. She hadn’t expected the comms to yield anything at all. Munching away, she divided her attention between the two prongs of their repair efforts.
Lauren sprang to her silver paws. “I’m in! Buffering the transmission...”
Breakfast forgotten, Imogene and the others crowded around. Maybe things weren’t as bad as she’d feared.
“This is Acting Section Commander Drayman.” The voice came tinny over the datapad’s speaker.
Alexei whistled, and Imogene sucked in a fervent breath. There was someone there. Someone in charge. Everything was going to be okay.
“Yes, sir!” Lauren said. “This is—”
That wonderful, tinny voice cut her off. “All units are ordered to hold position until communications can be reestablished. Scan sat channels red 15 through 25 and hold position until relieved.”
The message began to repeat, and Imogene’s hope crumbled into dust.
“It’s just a recording.” Alexei’s ears drooped. He nudged Lauren’s shoulder. “Try some other line.”
Lauren’s whiskers slicked back. “I can’t. That’s the only good connection. The rest are showing hardware faults.”
A leaden silence fell over the room.
Bruce twisted his lips into a wry grimace. “Well, it was worth a try, but I guess that’s that.”
“No it isn’t.” Lauren’s eyes sparked at him. “We’re gonna set up an antenna and scan like we were ordered to.”
“Why?” Bruce arched one dark eyebrow. “If there was a working satellite, wouldn’t our suit comms have picked it up?”
“That depends on how many satellites and their orbital arrangement. If there’s just one and it’s in a low polar orbit, we might only get signal here for a couple hours a month. That’s why we need to get an antenna set up and tied in with the base computers; it can alert us when one comes overhead, without somebody having to sit outside scanning for it.”
Aaron nodded. “Makes sense. Do you need help, or should I keep on with the power converter?”
“I think Alexei and I can manage.” She glanced over at the rabbit, who shrugged.
They left, and Imogene settled down to finish eating. Bruce and Aaron dug back into the converter’s guts. The bear’s multimeter beeped on and off, cutting through their low murmurs and sounding like some lonely coded signal from a bygone era.
Imogene sighed. What were the chances Lauren could actually raise anyone? Comm sats might be above the hail of second-hand bullets and meteoroids plaguing the surface, but they made tempting and easy targets. She swallowed a mouthful of tasteless scrambled eggs and tried to look on the bright side. Anything that kept Lauren out of everyone’s fur while they concentrated on more important matters couldn’t be all bad.
“That about covers it.” Aaron disentangled himself from the mess of wires. “Nothing left but to plug it all together and pray.”
Imogene bolted the last of her food and stood. “Anything I can help with?”
“Not really,” Aaron said. “We ran all the cables yesterday. Just have to hook it up and turn on the crawler.”
It didn’t take long. They set up the converter on the floor just inside the airlock, then Bruce suited up and went out to start the Fire Ant’s engine. The converter gave a loud click as the power began to flow, then settled into a whining hum that hovered on the edge of audibility and made Imogene fold her ears.
“It’s taking it.” Aaron licked his lips. “It’s taking it.” He pulled out a datapad and brought up a status screen. “Slow, slow but steady. We should have the reserve cells up to full inside ninety minutes.”
Imogene peered over his shoulder at the readout. “And that’s enough power to keep things running here for a week or better, right?”
“If we scrimp, yeah. But we’ve got bunkers and bunkers full of fuel for the crawler. We may as well turn the lights and life support back up to normal and just recharge every couple days.”
That sounded awfully good. The dark and dank ate away at morale—her own in particular. Getting things at least a little closer to normality would help everyone start thinking clearly again.
The power continued to flow, and after a time Bruce came back inside. He tucked his helmet under one arm and stood beside Imogene. “Everything working?”
Aaron gave a satisfied nod. “Seems to be.”
“Is it supposed to be making that whining noise?” Bruce looked down at the converter. “It’s bloody irritating.”
Aaron frowned. “What noise?”
“You can’t hear it? High pitched humming, cuts right through you?”
“It’s been getting worse,” Imogene said. “I thought it was just warming up or something.”
Aaron’s frown deepened. “No, I can’t hear anything.” He knelt down and leaned his head close to the converter. “Still nothing. It’s smelling pretty hot...maybe we better—”
A crack like a gunshot rang through the corridor, and Aaron screamed. He fell backwards, clutching his face. The lights flickered and died. The converter crackled and hissed, and Aaron screamed again.
Blinded in the dark, Imogene stumbled forward to help, but tripped and landed in a tangle. Bruce cursed over the sounds of Aaron’s anguish and the dying sputters of the converter. Then the stag’s headlamp came on, throwing a harsh light over the scene.
A thin wisp of smoke rose from the converter, and beyond it, Aaron cowered against the wall. He’d stopped screaming, but still clutched his face, letting out a continuous low moan.
Imogene scrambled over to him. He didn’t seem injured, apart from whatever had happened to his face, and with Bruce’s help she eased him into a sitting position.
“Oh gods—it burns.” The bear’s deep voice shook.
Gently, Imogene pulled his hands away from his face.
He resisted briefly, then gave in. A thick reddish fluid matted the fur of his face and hands. It didn’t look like blood; the color was wrong. Tiny bits of metal glinted in the red stuff, and his eyes were squeezed tightly shut. The skin around them was starting to swell.
“What is that stuff?” Imogene asked.
“I don’t know.” Bruce’s headlamp swung from Aaron’s face to the still smoking converter. “Some kind of coolant. Help me get him up and over to the stairwell. Whatever it is, we better get it washed off.” He glanced at the injured tech. “You understand, Aaron?”
“Yeah,” Aaron spoke through gritted teeth. “I can’t see. My eyes are on fire.”
Imogene and Bruce hoisted him upright and steadied him to the flooded stairwell. He stumbled on the narrow steps and fell headfirst into the water.
Biting her lip against the wet and cold, Imogene waded in and helped him up.
Aaron resurfaced, took a few breaths, then plunged his head into the water again. He scrubbed frantically, and the water took on a reddish tinge.
“Can you stay with him?” Bruce asked. “I saw a full-size med kit in one of the storerooms.”
Imogene nodded, and he hurried off. The light from his headlamp went with him, and the water seemed to rise into the darkness. Imogene’s guts twisted, but she forced away the fear, locking her attention on keeping Aaron steady. She didn’t know how long they stood there, partway down the stairs, but it felt like a long time.
Finally the clank of boots and a faint light from the corridor marked Bruce’s return. “How’s he doing?”
“Better,” Aaron answered for himself. “But still very painful, and I can’t see.”
“Okay. I took a quick look at the converter, and one of the big capacitors ruptured. Do you know what they fill them with?”
Aaron shook his head. “I think I’ve got most of it out, though. It just hurts, not burning anymore.”
“There’s some saline in the kit,” Bruce offered. “If you think you’ve got it all out, we can rinse your eyes with that and then bandage them.”
Imogene guided the bear up to the landing and helped him lay down on the floor. The skin around his lips and nose was inflamed too, although not as badly as his eyes. Both were swollen nearly shut, and when carefully pried open to irrigate, were blood-shot.
While Bruce worked, Scott appeared in the doorway. His tail twitched uncontrollably, and he gripped a hand light almost hard enough to crack the plastic. Bruce and Aaron filled him in on what had happened, then sent him off to reset the breaker that was probably responsible for the power outage.
A few minutes after he left, the glow panels flicked back to their gloomy half-life. The ventilation system coughed, sending out a puff of slightly less fetid air.
“That about does it.” Bruce leaned back from putting the finishing touches on Aaron’s dressing. “Looks like both thermal and chemical burns, but I’m not sure. I wish we had a real doctor.”
Aaron pushed into a sitting position and winced. “I’m just glad you’re here. Our medic was upstairs when the dome went.” He reached up and felt gingerly around the bandages. “Any pain pills in that kit? I could really use some about now.”
Bruce found him some pills, and they took him back to the common room. Everyone else was accounted for and unhurt, although understandably shaken. After making Aaron as comfortable as possible, Imogene and Bruce went to check the prisoners. She didn’t really expect them to have hurt themselves in the dark, but it was best to check, and almost time to feed them again anyway.
“Why did the lights go out?” Omar demanded as soon as the door slid open. The hare was up on his paws, brown fur rippling as his muscles tensed.
Imogene stepped into the small room, but kept her distance. “We had a problem with the power supply.”
“And the air? It is getting very thick. Why do you not turn on the life support? Another problem?” He thrust his chin forward aggressively.
Her jaw tightened. “You should know, you’re the ones who shot up the base.”
“It was not us,” Ming-Xue put in quietly. “We are scouts.”
The white rat sat cross-legged in the room’s far corner, broken wrist held close. Her wide blue eyes sought Imogene’s and held them earnestly.
Imogene sighed, struggling to build a wall around her misplaced anger. “I know.”
Ming-Xue dipped her muzzle and gave a tight smile.
“But there is a problem? With the power?” Omar persisted.
Turning back to him, Imogene snorted. “I think that’s obvious. Your friends did a good job.”
His ears twitched, but he let her barb pass. “Exactly what is broken? I have done some electrical work. Perhaps I could assist.”
Imogene’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure. And why this sudden urge to be helpful?”
“Ha! I want to die here no more than you. If you let the air degrade so far, that must be close.”
Logical, but could they trust him? No matter how nice it would be if everyone worked together, Imogene wasn’t stupid. She offered a noncommittal flick of her ears.
“We’ll keep that in mind.” She set down the field rations she’d been holding, then backed out of the cell. Closing the door, she turned to face Bruce. “What do you think? With Aaron out of action we could use any help going.”
“Maybe.” The stag nodded. “But I want another look at the converter first. It might be something I can fix myself.”
Imogene followed him back to the site of the accident, then waited while he went out to shut down the Fire Ant, which was still doing its best to push power into the ruined converter.
It didn’t take a technician to tell the converter was a mess. One component the size of a tuna-can had torn itself apart, and the rest showed charring. More of the red goo spattered everything, and they both avoided touching it.
Bruce made a helpless gesture and stood up. “Out of my league. Obviously that capacitor needs to be replaced, but I don’t even know where to start with the rest.”
“Then should we let Omar take a look?” Imogene pushed up to her hooves as well.
“Might as well. I don’t think he could make it much worse.”
They picked up the suitcase-sized converter between them and carried it back to Ming-Xue and Omar’s cell.
Their prisoners hadn’t finished eating, and looked up in surprise. Omar quickly set down his rations and came over.
“This is our main problem at the moment.” Bruce nudged the converter with one hoof. “It burned out, and we aren’t sure how to fix it.”
Omar knelt beside the singed electronics. “It is a normalizing high-step converter, yes? I do not know if I can fix it, but if you give me tools I will try.”
“What do you need?”
The brown hare glanced up. “To start? A multimeter, needle-nose pliers, and both flat and cross-head screwdrivers. Maybe a soldering set and spare parts once I know what is wrong.”
“All right.” Bruce turned to Imogene. “Keep an eye on them.” He trotted off, leaving her alone with the two PAF prisoners.
Omar watched him go, then returned his attention to the converter.
Sitting in her corner, Ming-Xue finished her meal and leaned back against the wall. “If this is repaired, we will have power and air again? We will be okay?” She looked inquiringly up at Imogene.
“As long as the food and water hold out.” She flicked her ears. “Hopefully we can call someone for help before that.”
Ming-Xue frowned. “Surely you have sent someone out for help?”
“Not yet. We need to stabilize things here first.”
“I see.” Ming-Xue fell silent, wrapping her furless tail around her paws.
Her honest disbelief struck a chord with Imogene. She had no great hope of Lauren contacting anyone, and while she refused to let herself sink into despair again, she knew the odds of a timely rescue went down with each passing minute. When they came to Borda a week ago, it seemed like a relief. Now the base felt more and more like a trap.
Bruce returned with a pair of gloves and some rags in addition to the requested tools.
“Careful of the red goo,” he handed over the caution along with the tools. “We’re not sure what it is.”
Omar swabbed some up with his finger, sniffed, then wiped it off on a rag. “Melted forium gel. Tastes very bad.” Not bothering with gloves, he mopped up most of the goo and started to probe around with the multimeter.
He hadn’t been working long when the cell door slid open and Alexei entered. “There you are,” he huffed at Bruce. “The power’s still out in the comm center, and Lauren’s getting pissed off. I tried asking Aaron for help, but I can’t make heads or tails out of his instructions. Then he said I should ask you.”
Bruce sighed. “Right. I’ll see what I can do.” Shaking his head, he turned and left.
When Alexei made no move to follow, Imogene arched her brows at him. “Aren’t you going to go tell Lauren or something?”
“Nah, I don’t think so.” His whiskers twitched. “She lost a lot of work when the power cut out. She may know computers, but she’s got a hell of a temper to go with it.”
“She does at that.” Imogene’s tongue slid over the mostly healed space where her missing molar had been. She didn’t blame Alexei for wanting to steer clear of the lynx until she’d had a chance to cool down.
Omar cleared his throat and they both looked down at him. “Could I have a flat-head screwdriver? The only one your friend brought is a cross.”
“I can get you one.” Alexei nodded, then looked over at Imogene and frowned. He tugged her away from Omar and lowered his voice. “Why are you letting him mess with this anyway?”
“He knows some electrical stuff. Bruce and I figured with Aaron blinded it was the best thing to do.”
“I s’pose.” He nodded again. “You might keep it quiet, though. Lauren wouldn’t like you giving them tools and stuff. Especially without asking her first.”
He left then, and Imogene narrowed her eyes at Omar. She believed he and Ming-Xue understood the situation and were willing to work towards mutual survival, but Lauren would never trust them, or any help that came from them. Scott and the other survivors mostly fell in that same hostile category. Best to avoid mentioning Omar’s cooperation for now.
Alexei returned and handed a screwdriver to Omar.
The brown hare thanked him, then resumed his work. He was slow and methodical, which Imogene took as a good sign. On the other hand, the pile of rejected components he was amassing didn’t bode well for an easy repair. Finally he made a clicking noise with his tongue and sat back.
“It is not good,” he said in his oddly flat intonation. “There is much damage. Most I could repair if I had parts, but the mid-step regulator has fused. I do not know if a small base like this would have a suitable replacement.”
“What about the rest?” She pointed her muzzle at the collection of circuit boards and larger components he’d removed.
“Useless, but common.” He gave a dismissive wave. “There should be no trouble finding substitutes.”
“We’ll see what we can find, then. Thanks for looking at it.” Imogene knelt and shoveled the rejected bits into an empty carton.
Omar slid his borrowed tools in alongside them and stood up. “Perhaps...I could help you search?”
“Later, maybe.” Imogene eyed his expressionless ears and down-sloping lagomorph muzzle, then turned to Alexei. “Could you give me a hand with the converter?”
He grunted an affirmative and helped her carry it to the outer chamber. They slid the converter onto a shelf beside the prisoners’ armor. Imogene checked the cell door was shut and locked, then the two of them headed out into the corridor.
Bruce was coming the other way and nodded a greeting. “You finished up inside? What’s the word?”
“He says it needs more parts,” Imogene said. “Some special bit in particular. I thought we’d go ask Aaron if there are any spares.”
“Okay. We can go do that now. Lauren’s getting everyone together for a meeting or something.”
Alexei grimaced. “Great. Could you tell if she was still angry?”
“No more than usual.” Bruce flicked his ears, then glanced at the door to their makeshift prison. “You checked that you got all the tools and stuff back, right?”
“Yep,” Alexei reassured him. “One pair of pliers, two screwdrivers, one voltmeter, and a pile of burnt electronics.”
“Good enough,” Bruce said. “Let’s go see what Lauren wants.”
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-six, with glimmers of hope, and great big gobs of misfortune.
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