MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
OUT OF TIME
With all twenty-three survivors together, the common room felt crowded. The shelving units had long since been pushed aside, and crates set up for seating, but elbows and tails still bumped and jostled to make room for everyone. The warmth from so many bodies made a pleasant contrast to the chill seeping through the base, but by the same token, the air inside grew even thicker and more distasteful to breathe.
Last to arrive, Imogene’s group settled near the door.
Aaron was recounting the accident for the others’ benefit. Whatever had been in his pain meds was working a bit too well; he’d picked up a drunken slur, and seemed to almost be enjoying himself.
Lauren waited a moment after he finished, then spoke, “Thank you, Aaron. I think that’s more detail of what went wrong than any of us could ask for.” Sarcasm dripped from each word, but the bear just smiled and nodded. She rolled her eyes, then turned them on Imogene and Bruce. “What’s the status of the power system? If I’m busting my tail to fix the comms, I damn well want there to be power to run them when I’m done.”
Bruce hitched one shoulder. “It’s not good. The converter’s damaged, and we only got the reserves up to about fifteen percent before it blew.”
Farther back, Scott frowned. “How long will that last us?”
“Maybe three, four days.”
“And then what? Can we fix the converter? Try again?” The raccoon’s eyes darted from face to face with each question.
Bruce sighed. “I don’t know. Some of us looked at it, but we’re gonna need more parts.” He turned to Imogene. “What did you say it was?”
“The mid-step regulator. It’s fused, and we didn’t know if there’s a spare...?”
“Nah.” Aaron shook his head. “Nothing like that.”
“I don’t suppose you could jury-rig something similar?” Imogene asked.
“Without my eyes? Hell no.” He chopped the air emphatically. “And just how soon they might get better, I can’t say. Never been blind before, y’know?” He ended with a snorting chuckle.
“Right.” Her ears twitched uncomfortably and she looked away.
“What about you?” Scott’s gaze latched on to Lauren. “You did a good job fixing the fiber line. Maybe you could figure something out?”
The lynx wrinkled her nose. “I doubt it. There’s a big difference between computers and power systems.”
“Oh.” Scott’s tail went limp.
“Speaking of them, what about the sat-comms?” Imogene asked. “Any time estimate?”
Lauren’s ears flicked back and her eyes narrowed. “It’ll take as long as it takes. Longer when people decide to kill the power without warning.”
“That was hardly intentional,” Bruce cut in. “Right now we need to figure out what to do about life support and power.” He paused to let his words sink in, then turned to Aaron. “I know you can’t help with any of the physical work, Aaron, but you’re still the best electrician we have. Are there any other power reserves we can tap? Weapons systems maybe? Or the buggies in the garage?”
The bear frowned, pulling the bandage over his eyes tight. “Weapons stuff was all downstairs. You might get a little from the buggies, if we can figure how to drain ’em. They’re probably pretty run down by now anyway.”
“All right, suits then. A base this size should have a decent amount of EVA equipment. It won’t be comfortable, but at least we won’t suffocate.”
Aaron gave an amused snort. “Not as soon, you mean. We got no way to recharge the power packs.”
His drug-induced bluntness settled over the gathering like a layer of thick, gray dust. At the back of the room a young ferret began to cry softly and was comforted by her seatmate.
Imogene watched them dully. She hadn’t spoken more than three words to either of them. Didn’t even know their names.
Finally, Lauren broke the silence. “There is still the Fire Ant. Even if we can’t take power from it, there’s nothing wrong with the life support, and we have plenty of fuel.”
Her words sent a flutter of hope through Imogene. Then she looked around the crowded chamber, and her heart sank again. “It won’t work. You’d be lucky to get half of us in that little crawler.”
“Well, the rest could wait outside,” Lauren snapped. “Who knows? Maybe we can scrape together enough PAF suits and power packs for everyone. The Fire Ant’s bound to have a charger for them.”
An image of the dismembered bodies littering the valley flashed through Imogene’s mind. There couldn’t be more than a handful of PAF suits that could be repaired. Certainly not enough for everyone.
Alexei frowned, evidently thinking along similar lines. “But what if we can’t? What happens when the people in UNA suits run out of power?”
“Then we find out who’s who, of course.” Aaron bared his teeth in another snorting laugh. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised some bunch don’t decide to just drive off before it came to that.”
“Nobody here would do that!” The rabbit’s ears jerked upright and he looked around for support.
Aaron just chuckled.
“Well, they wouldn’t,” Alexei said sullenly.
Scott’s white eyebrows drew together during this exchange, and he spoke slowly into the quiet that followed. “What about those PAF you have locked up? If we’re all going to suffocate, shouldn’t we get rid of them now and save the air for us?”
The corner of Lauren’s mouth quirked upwards at this. “That’s a good question.” She looked over at Imogene and Bruce. “We let you keep them earlier. What do you say now?”
All eyes turned on them.
Imogene shrank under their gaze. Then something inside her dug in its hooves, and she shook her head.
“None of this matters.” She stood up and cast her eyes over the suddenly quiet gathering. “It’s more than two weeks since the attack here. If any help was coming, it would’ve been here by now. Scraping out a few more days or hours—it doesn’t matter. No one is coming.”
“Someone will come,” Lauren spat. “You think they’d just leave us? The section commander said to hold position. Any day now a relief column will get here, and we need to hold on until they do.”
A rumble of agreement swept the Borda survivors.
“Normally, yes,” Imogene conceded. “But this isn’t some little border skirmish. If we want help we’re gonna have to go out and look for it. They probably don’t even know we’re still here.”
“And how do you know it’s not just a skirmish?” Lauren asked.
Imogene’s jaw dropped. “We should’ve been more than seven-hundred klicks behind friendly lines here! And you don’t think it’s an all-out war? Damn it, just go outside and look up! You honestly think anyone cares about us now?”
“So then what? Disobey orders and abandon the base?” Lauren’s lips twisted in scorn. “You said yourself we can’t all fit in the Fire Ant. Who gets to walk? And where would you even go?” Her ears flicked forward. “We have to wait here. It’s our duty to hold the base, and someone will come.”
Alexei’s whiskers twitched nervously, but he nodded as she spoke.
Imogene looked around at the other survivors. Most of the base personnel clearly agreed with Lauren.
Bruce wore his usual worried frown. He glanced over at the others, then back to Imogene and gave a slight shake of his head. She could tell he agreed with her, but he was right; no one was ready to accept just how bad things really were.
Imogene gritted her teeth. “All right. If you all want to stay here and hope, that’s what we’ll do. Bruce, Alexei, let’s get suited up and start looking. We’ve got our armor, so that means we need seventeen more suits—of one sort or another—and as many power packs as we can find.”
Lauren looked like she wanted to object, but Imogene spun on her hooves and left before the lynx could do more than glower.
* * *
Searching through the rubble for EVA suits and power packs was grim work. UNA suits weren’t a problem, plenty hung in the airlock ready rooms. There were power packs there too, but more would be needed. That meant looking for bodies.
Most of the dead inside the dome had been suitless, but outside, the remains of several infantry squads littered the landscape. Each ruined vehicle had held suits for its crew, and needed to be investigated as well.
In the solitude of her armor, Imogene brooded. Once, she looked up to where the Earth hung as an ash-gray disc, then quickly looked away.
She knew she was right. Everything they had ever known was being swept away. If any of them were going to survive, they needed to realize that soon. Lauren’s promise of a simple comm call and a swift rescue echoed empty. Did the lynx even believe it herself, or was she just clinging to the last fragments of order and control? Either way, arguing with her couldn’t have helped matters.
Five hours combing through the battlefield yielded only three PAF suits in good enough shape to repair. Assuming they crammed into the Fire Ant like sardines in an armored can, that still left four or five people reliant on the UNA suits they had no way to recharge.
They gathered the suits and all the power packs they could find, piling them in the stairwell outside the basement airlock.
Returning with the last of their spoils, Alexei added them to the bulky heap. “You think they’ll all fit in the airlock?”
Bruce punched the airlock’s open button and shrugged. “No reason we can’t make two trips.” The airlock didn’t open, and he thumbed the button again. “Assuming we can get in at all—”
The door opened and a gray blur launched out.
Bruce yelled as the attacker hit him. The tackle carried him backward into the wall, where he and his assailant slid to the floor in a tangle of limbs.
A second figure emerged from the airlock and moved purposefully towards Imogene and Alexei.
Imogene backpedaled, belatedly recognizing Omar and Ming-Xue’s angular gray armor.
Ming-Xue closed on them, her motions showing a graceful familiarity with the low gravity. Neither she nor Omar spoke, leaving Bruce and Alexei’s profane exclamations the only comm traffic.
With a yell, Alexei surged forward. He grabbed at the rat, trying to catch the injured arm she kept close to her middle.
She twisted aside, evading his clumsy grab and making a clean one of her own. With a flick of her good wrist, she redirected the rabbit’s attack and sent him sprawling into the airlock.
Imogene took another step backwards and felt her boot brush the bottom stair. Bruce and Omar still writhed together. She didn’t dare take her attention from Ming-Xue long enough to see who was winning.
The rat started forward again, silver-tinted visor hiding any expression.
Dread pooled in Imogene’s belly. Her unarmed bouts with Victor had taught her enough to know that even with a broken wrist Ming-Xue outclassed her in every way. She dredged her memory for any tricks the big cat might have taught her. But all she found was his warm scent and the feel of his hard muscles when her bungled attacks left them both fallen and hopelessly entangled—
She narrowed her eyes. There was no way she could win, but she might be able to make sure Ming-Xue lost.
With a feigned grab at Ming-Xue’s leading wrist, she threw herself at the rat.
Ming-Xue batted the grab away, but Imogene’s artless tackle plowed into her. The rat managed to pivot, coming down atop Imogene, but both ended up on the floor. Ming-Xue was definitely the better fighter, but Imogene held on stubbornly, twisting as hard as she could at Ming-Xue’s broken wrist. Alexei returned to even the odds, and between them, they subdued the rodent.
By the wall, Bruce had Omar face-down, arms pinned firmly behind his back.
“Everyone okay?” Bruce asked.
“I think so.” Alexei was still breathing hard. He glanced at Imogene, who nodded.
“Good.” Bruce hoisted Omar up, keeping his arms behind him. “Let’s get them back inside.”
Bruce and Omar went through the airlock first, then Alexei and Ming-Xue, leaving Imogene to bring up the rear.
She stepped out almost on top of the prisoners, backed into the corner with Alexei guarding. The Borda survivors crowded the rest of the passage, ears flat and teeth bared. Imogene tensed. Not good.
Between the two groups stood Bruce and Scott.
Blood matted the fur above the raccoon’s left eye, and his ears lay back against his skull. He held a rifle—fortunately pointed upwards—and his ringed tail thrashed against the legs of those nearby.
“I don’t care.” Bruce crossed his arms. “I’m not letting you kill them out of hand.”
Scott snarled. “Why the hell not? They’ve proven they’re dangerous!”
“Yeah,” the stag grunted. “But that’s not something you get to decide alone. Remember, they could have killed you, but they didn’t.”
Imogene’s pulse throbbed in her ears, but she forced her breathing back under control. The part of her reeling from the fight agreed with Scott, but the rest of her knew Bruce was right. She couldn’t blame Ming-Xue and Omar for wanting to get away from people who planned to murder them. Actually, she wished they’d gotten away. It would have made everything easier.
She slid up beside Bruce, further blocking Scott’s aim.
At the corridor’s far end, Lauren came into view. She wore her armor, and in her hands was another rifle. Pushing through the crowd, she surveyed the situation. “You caught them? Good.” She nodded approvingly. “Alexei, get out of the way so we can shoot them.”
“Here now.” Bruce sidled between Lauren and the prisoners. “Are you sure that’s what we really ought to do?”
Behind her open visor, Lauren frowned. “Of course. They’re using up air, anyway.”
“That’s true,” said Bruce. “But don’t you think we should at least talk about it first?”
“I don’t see what’s to talk about.” She peered around him to where Alexei still stood by the prisoners. “Alexei, I told you: you’re in the way.”
He looked from Bruce to Lauren uncertainly, then slowly moved aside.
Imogene edged closer to Bruce. She’d believed they could curb Scott’s aggression, but adding Lauren into the mix...
Bruce locked his eyes with Lauren’s. “First off, who put you in charge? And don’t try to argue a few months’ seniority between privates. Obviously you and Scott want them dead, but what about everyone else?”
The lynx snorted. “Fine. Let’s ask.” She turned to face the rest of the corridor. “Everyone who thinks we should let them keep breathing our air, raise your hands.”
“A vote?” Imogene couldn’t contain herself. “You’re talking about murdering two prisoners of war! How can this even be an option?” She searched the angry faces around her, hoping for some glimmer of compassion. A few eyes fell guiltily when her gaze met them, but few—precious few.
“She does have a point,” Bruce said into the silence following her outburst. “Apart from any moral issues, killing them could be a very bad idea if anyone ever found out. Do you all trust each other not to blab to some war-crimes committee? I sure don’t.”
That wasn’t what Imogene meant at all, and she cast him a sideways glance.
But his words had an effect where hers hadn’t. The beginnings of doubt crept through the crowded corridor.
Seeing this, Imogene swallowed her own feelings to shore up their new position. “At least give it some time. This isn’t something to decide lightly, and we’ll all have clearer heads tomorrow.”
That got a few reluctant nods from the Borda personnel, and on the sidelines, Alexei looked relieved. “I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “I’m not sure we should keep them, but this is all going too fast.”
Lauren’s eyes narrowed and she shot Alexei a sharp look. Most of the locals still seemed willing to back her, but she lowered her rifle. “All right. A few hours won’t make much difference if it’ll keep you happy.” Her glare returned to Imogene and Bruce. “But I want them back in their cell with a guard on the door until they’re dealt with.”
Bruce gave a curt nod. “That’s only prudent.”
They took the captives back to their storeroom prison and stripped them of their armor.
Ming-Xue whimpered as her injured arm came free, and Imogene struggled to suppress a surge of sympathy. The rat had brought it on herself. Bruce inspected the cast and added another layer of thermoset where the first had been cut to fit in her armor.
While Bruce finished, Alexei turned to Scott. “How did they get out, anyway?”
“I don’t know.” The raccoon glowered at the two prisoners. “By the time they attacked me out in the corridor, they were already suited up and headed for the airlock.”
Bruce stepped into the cell and glanced around. “They’ve got the door’s service panel off—somehow—and there’s a screwdriver wedged in behind the locking actuator.” He looked up at Alexei. “I thought you said you got them both back?”
Omar snorted, the first sound he’d made since being recaptured. “Stupid rabbit brought me another, and lazy caribou didn’t notice.”
Alexei rounded on him, shoving the now unarmored hare into a shelving unit. “You tricked me!”
Omar just smirked, and Alexei shoved him again, harder this time.
“Why in blazes were you giving them tools in the first place?” Lauren demanded.
No one spoke for a moment, then Bruce cleared his throat. “We had him look at the power converter, after the accident.”
Scott turned his glower on Bruce. “So all this is your fault?”
Rather than answer, Bruce hefted the access panel. “We should be good after I put this back on. You didn’t bring them any other tools, did you, Alexei?”
“Just the bloody screwdriver.” He scowled at Omar, who had the sense not to bait him further.
It only took a few minutes to replace the service panel and prod Ming-Xue and Omar back into the cell.
“Right,” Bruce said when the prisoners were secure. “I don’t think they can get loose again, but we’ll post a guard to be safe. I can take the first shift.”
“No,” Alexei said. “I’ll do it. I’m too angry to sleep anyway.”
Bruce cast him a measuring look, then nodded. “Come wake me when you get tired.”
“I will.” He took Scott’s rifle and checked it was in order before settling down on an empty crate.
They left him to it.
The common room buzzed with conversation that died the moment Imogene stepped through the door. It didn’t take a great deal of imagination to guess what had been under discussion.
Imogene’s jaw tightened. All they’d managed was to buy a little time. Afraid anything she might say in the prisoners’ defense would only make matters worse, she ate quickly and then retired.
Despite the weary aches in every joint, sleep didn’t come easy. The whole situation was circling the drain. They needed help, but the others would never accept that in time. Setting off alone in search of rescue was tantamount to suicide, though, especially on foot.
She couldn’t leave Ming-Xue and Omar here to die, either. By accepting their surrender she’d made it her responsibility to see them treated fairly. There’d been far too much bloodshed already, and living only mattered as long as she could live with herself.
She had to take care of them. Somehow.
Those thoughts and others like them rolled around her head, occasionally crashing together and giving off sparks of short-lived hope. Then one spark refused to die. It grew brighter, and slowly reshaped itself into the beginnings of a plan. She wasn’t sure she liked it, but it was better than nothing, and so she teased after its details until sleep finally found her.
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-seven, in which Judy Hopps and Balto make mad, passionate love. Alright, they don't. I'm just seeing if anyone reads these comments or not. XP
I'll be posting new chapters twice a week, or, for the price of a fancy coffee, you can buy it all on Amazon. Not only do you get instant gratification, you also get that warm fuzzy feeling from supporting an independent artist. =^_^=