MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
SEEDS OF BETRAYAL
Imogene didn’t know how long she slept. She hadn’t meant to sleep at all, and berated herself for missing her chance to act. But glancing over to where Bruce made his sleeping place, she saw there was still time.
The stag was there, and speaking softly with Alexei. In fact, the rabbit’s arrival was probably what had woken her. Their conversation concluded, and Bruce left quietly while Alexei moved to his own resting place.
Imogene lay still. Alexei probably wouldn’t like what she’d planned, so she waited.
After a time, he began to snore.
Lying closer to him, Lauren mumbled something and rolled over to face the wall.
Imogene gave them a few minutes more, then rose carefully and made her way into the corridor.
With everyone asleep, the distant plick of water dripping in the dead power plant filled her ears. She tread as softly as she could, but each click of hoof against lithcrete seemed like a gauss round hitting stone. At last, she reached their makeshift prison and slid the outer door closed behind her.
Seated on a crate near the inner door, Bruce watched her. “I like nocturnal games as well as the next person, but this hardly seems the time.” He kept his voice low, tone serious.
Imogene sat down beside him. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“I didn’t think so. Why then?”
Her green eyes caught his brown ones. “Tell me, honestly, do you believe we have any chance of getting rescued?”
He grimaced and looked away. “It’s possible.”
“But not likely.”
Wearily, he shook his head.
“So the logical thing to do is go look for help, right?”
“It’d be pointless,” he said. “We couldn’t get more than a hundred klicks, and it would take days.”
Imogene looked down at her hands. “Not if we took the Fire Ant.”
“Lauren and the others would never go for that.”
This was the part that worried her. But she’d made up her mind to see this through, and after a deep breath, she took the plunge.
“That’s why we don’t ask them.”
Bruce let out a low whistle.
“They won’t be much worse off,” she added hastily. “I did the math. With the power packs we have already, they should be okay for a good two weeks. If we can’t find help by then, there isn’t any coming anyway. At least this way everyone will have a chance.”
“It’s an idea.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t much like it, though.”
“Neither do I,” she said. “But if we wait for the others to agree, it’ll be too late.”
Bruce’s frown deepened, and he didn’t reply right away. He finally nodded towards the cell door. “What about them? I don’t fancy their chances without us here.”
“That’s the other reason we need to do it now. Scott and Lauren are gonna kill them. I know you’re not dumb enough to think we can keep protecting them. We’ve got to get away as soon as possible, and take them with us.”
“Of course.” Bruce heaved a long sigh. “I need to think about this.”
“Fair enough, but think fast. I’d really like your help, but one way or the other, I’m leaving tonight.” She rose and trotted to the door. There were preparations to be made.
She’d worked out this part of her plan in detail. Quickly but quietly, she moved through the base. In less than fifteen minutes she returned, now armed, armored, and with a satchel full of supplies.
Bruce sat where she’d left him. He rose to face her, still wearing a worried frown.
“I’ll do it.” He didn’t look happy, but gave a decisive nod. “If you’re set on doing this, I’ll go with you.”
A hard knot of tension melted from Imogene’s chest. Their gazes met, and she laid a gauntleted hand on his arm. “Thank you.”
His muzzle tightened and he squared his shoulders. “Well, it’s your plan. What do you need me to do?”
Imogene let her hand drift back to her side. “We’re about set. If you’d wait while I make sure our friends are...agreeable, then you can go get your armor and personal stuff. Meet us back here, and we’ll head out.”
“All right.” He hefted his rifle and moved aside to let her open the cell door.
As expected, Ming-Xue and Omar were inside, both fast asleep.
Imogene tapped the barrel of her rifle against the doorjamb.
The two PAF scouts woke faster than she would have believed, and Omar sprang upright. His eyes darted to the weapon in her hands, then narrowed. “So, you have come for us?”
“Not exactly. Bruce and I are leaving. You can stay if you want, or you can come with us. Your choice.”
The hare’s eyes narrowed even further. “And what is the trick?”
“No trick,” she said. “The base is fucked. No one will admit it, so we’re going for help. You’re coming along so we don’t find you full of holes when we get back. Simple.”
Ming-Xue rose more slowly and cocked her head at Imogene. “The others do not know of this?”
The white rat glanced over at Omar. “I doubt we will get a better offer.”
His lips compressed to a thin line, but he nodded.
“Get suited up, then.” Imogene waved them out of the cell. “The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”
Behind her, Bruce was already headed for the dim corridor.
Imogene’s preparations included a set of shears to trim Ming-Xue’s cast. The rat’s jaw clenched as they forced her plastic-wrapped forearm into the armor, but she managed to remain silent. Then Imogene backed off and watched impatiently while they donned the rest of their suits.
A crackle from her comm made Imogene jump.
“I’ve got my stuff, but Lauren and Alexei are gone.” Bruce’s voice filled her helmet. “Don’t wait for me. We can meet up at the crawler.”
“Damn it!” Imogene spun to face the corridor. The doorway was empty. No sign of lynx or rabbit.
Snapping the last piece of his suit into place, Omar looked up. “What is it?”
“Trouble.” Imogene glanced back to make sure both her charges were ready. “Come on.”
She moved up to the doorway and stuck her head out into the ring corridor. Still no one in sight, so she turned left, taking the shortest route possible. At the junction of the ring and spoke corridors she repeated her careful reconnaissance. The airlock door waited at the end of forty metres of shadowy corridor. Waving the PAF to follow, Imogene entered the passage.
They’d reached the midway point when a gray figure stepped out from the flooded stairwell.
Imogene skidded to a stop. Her eyes jerked to the rifle Lauren held ready, then to Alexei as he moved up beside Lauren. Omar cursed, and farther back, rapid boot falls signaled Bruce’s arrival.
“Going somewhere?” A smirk slithered across Lauren’s muzzle. “And in such poor company.”
Imogene’s chest tightened, but she forced determination into her voice. “We’re leaving. We’re going to go find help—”
Lauren scoffed. “And oh-so conveniently running off with our only working life support system. All for you and your boyfriend and your filthy PAF buddies.”
“We’re going to find help, and for that we need the crawler, yes.” She turned to Alexei. “We are coming back. I promise you that. But if no one goes for help, none is ever going to come.”
His aim began to waver.
“Don’t listen to her! She’s lying!” Lauren’s smirk disappeared in an angry snarl. “She doesn’t care about her duty, or about any of us. All she cares about is herself and those bloody PAF!”
“That’s not true.” Imogene fixed her eyes on Alexei’s. If she could persuade him, Lauren might back down. “I want us all to get out of here alive, and this is the only way that’s going to happen.”
Alexei’s whiskers twitched frantically, but his aim drifted farther and farther.
Imogene spread her hands, palms outward, and kept her tone calm. “You helped us gather the power packs. You know there’s enough for at least two weeks. We’ll be back with help before then, and none of this will matter. You won’t have to shoot me, or Bruce, or anyone else.”
“Shut up!” Lauren’s claws tightened around her rifle. “Don’t try and make this about us. You’re the ones disobeying orders!”
Alexei’s gaze darted between Imogene to the lynx. “Damn it, Lauren, I can’t do this!” He let his rifle fall out of line.
Lauren snarled. “Then I will!” In one fluid motion, she shouldered her rifle, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
Time seemed to slow. Bruce and Alexei yelled, but their words didn’t hold any meaning. A tooth-jarring impact slammed into Imogene’s chest. Her breath left in an agonizing whoosh. She fell backwards, another bullet striking her shoulder and making her spin as she sailed into Ming-Xue. She and the rat went down in a tangle of limbs.
More shots split the air. Or were they echos? It was too hard to think or breathe to be sure. She lay on her back, hands seeking her chest as she coughed and gasped. People were yelling, but she couldn’t piece together what they said.
Bruce’s brown-furred face pushed into view, blocking out the lithcrete ceiling. His lips moved, terrified eyes flicking from her face to her chest. He pulled her hands away, and relief flooded his soft chocolate eyes.
“—you okay?” His words started to make sense again.
She managed to suck in a proper lungful of air. “I don’t know. Yes?”
She reached up again, feeling the divots in her chest and shoulder armor. The one above her heart went clean through to the ballistic fabric under the titanium, but now that she was thinking again she could feel the bullet hadn’t gotten inside. It felt like she’d been hit with a bat. Or a meteoroid.
She pushed herself up on her elbows, looking for Lauren. The lynx lay a dozen metres away, hissing and kicking. Alexei knelt in the middle of her back, a thin trail of blood running down the white fur of his cheek.
“Hurry up,” Alexei called. “Scott and the rest will be here any minute. If I’m gonna get shredded for letting you go, you blasted well better get away.”
Ming-Xue and Omar edged past the snarling lynx and bounded for the airlock. Bruce pulled Imogene to her hooves and helped her down the corridor.
“We are coming back,” she said as they passed Alexei. “We’re not leaving you.”
He glanced up, dark eyes holding hers. “Yeah. I sure hope so.”
* * *
Night’s deep shadow lay heavy over the gray hills. The Fire Ant and the narrow road crawling past its headlamps were the only signs anyone had ever been here. Imogene never thought the stark, lonely vista could feel so welcoming.
A few kilometres out from Borda the road forked, and Bruce pulled the crawler to a halt. “I guess the next question is where we’re going.” The red glow of the instrument panel glinted off his eyes as he looked at Imogene. “We know there were PAF in Mare Nectaris, so I’m thinking east, into Fecunditatis?”
Imogene rubbed the bruise forming across her chest. She hadn’t considered where to go, only getting away from Borda. “What about back to the guard station at Piccolomini N?”
Bruce shook his head. “That’s skirting awfully close to where the PAF might be. Besides, we need someplace with enough resources to mount a rescue mission. The garrison at Piccolomini was stripped to the bone already.”
“South, then? The farther we are from the front lines, the better our chances of finding someone who isn’t in even worse shape than us.”
“True.” Bruce flexed his fingers on the control yoke. “But the map has more and closer bases east.” He craned his neck to peer down at Ming-Xue and Omar, sitting in the main compartment. “What about you? Any ideas?”
Ming-Xue edged closer along the bench seat and aimed her pink nose up at them. “There are no roads south from Borda. We would need to circle some distance, or attempt cross country. I would suggest north to Bellot. The tracking station there has little military value and might have been bypassed.”
“How far north?”
“Perhaps four hundred klicks. Past Santbech, then east.”
Bruce raised one eyebrow at Imogene. She shrugged. Anywhere was better than the corpse of a base at Borda.
Several hours later they entered the battlefield surrounding Santbech. The broken shells of tanks and personnel carriers loomed up from the shadows. Deep craters broke the roadway, and the gray suits of fallen infantry littered the dust.
Bruce sent out a hail on the emergency channel, but there was no response.
Imogene clenched her jaw against the parade of destruction, but didn’t look away. If worse came to worse, and their search for help failed, there were enough power packs here to last a long time. Maybe even another vehicle in close to working order.
Despite that grim hope, she felt better when the last mangled body fell behind them, and only the clean lunar plains and sharp, cold stars remained.
“Do you have things under control?” she asked Bruce. “I might grab some food and a nap.”
“All right. Leave your rifle up here. I’ll keep an eye on Ming and Omar until you wake up.”
Imogene propped her rifle beside his, then slid down into the main compartment. Omar dozed in the far corner, but Ming-Xue looked up and offered a small smile.
Returning the smile, Imogene selected some of the PAF rations that had been left in the crawler. She turned the foil pouch over in her hands, searching for the self-heating unit. There wasn’t one, so she tore off one corner and raised the pouch to her muzzle.
“You should warm it first.” Ming-Xue took the packet from her and put it in a small cubby. A timer started counting down. “Still not quite food, but better than cold.”
Imogene chuckled. A soldier’s opinion of field rations transcended nationality, it would seem. How many other things did that kinship extend to? She looked from the cooking food over to Ming-Xue’s friendly blue eyes. Maybe she’d have a chance to find out.
The timer hit zero with a low beep, and Ming-Xue handed her the now warm packet. Steam billowed out when Imogene peeled it open, along with a whiff of spicy beef stew. Not wanting to burn herself, she examined the packet for some sort of eating utensil.
“No silverware either, huh?”
“No. Let it cool slightly, then eat it from the pouch. Built-in forks and heating tabs are wasteful.”
“But very convenient.” Imogene let her ears flop in exaggerated dejection.
Ming-Xue laughed. “And when have you known convenience to sway a leader’s mind? Unless it is their own.” She flicked her whiskers and returned to her seat. “Perhaps you should have taken some UNA rations with us.”
“Hmm.” Imogene squeezed the stew into her mouth, savoring the strong, if greasy, flavor. “I think yours taste a little better, though.”
The white rat’s eyes twinkled as she curled her tail across her lap. “Maybe we can have our people give yours the recipe.”
* * *
A series of thumps pierced the soft darkness wrapping Imogene. Groaning a protest, she squeezed her eyes tighter and flattened her ears.
The yell which followed jolted them erect again. Her sleep-clogged eyes snapped open and she groped for her absent rifle.
“Do not move.”
The voice was Omar’s, and she blinked until the brown hare came into focus. The hare, and the rifle he held leveled at her head.
Imogene’s heart skipped, then pounded double time. The crawler had stopped, and across the compartment, Bruce sprawled near the open door to the refresher. Ming-Xue covered him with their remaining rifle.
Omar nudged Imogene’s helmet forward with one paw. “Put this on. You are going for a walk.”
Fumbling to form some plan, her mind spun as she reluctantly donned the helmet and stood. She and Bruce were herded over to the airlock. Omar covered them while Ming-Xue dug into the supplies Imogene had brought. She took out all the PAF power packs and several fistfuls of EVA rations, then handed the reduced satchel to Imogene.
Taking it, she caught and held Ming-Xue’s gaze. “Why are you doing this?”
The rat’s whiskers twitched. “We appreciate what you have done, but if you find another UNA base, we will become prisoners again. That is not acceptable.”
“So instead you just leave us here?” Imogene asked.
Ming-Xue looked away. “It is...necessary. I am sorry.”
Imogene’s lips tightened. “So am I.” She snapped her visor shut and stepped into the airlock.
Bruce crowded in beside her, and the inner door slid shut. A few seconds later the outer door opened.
“Move out where we can see you.” Omar’s voice came over the emergency channel.
Teeth clenched, Imogene complied. She and Bruce moved well clear of the Fire Ant, then turned to see it already trundling off to the north. Angry heat rose in Imogene’s chest, and she fought the urge to grab a rock and throw it after the departing crawler.
Bruce slammed one fist into his other hand. “Damn the both of them! And me, too.” His visor turned towards Imogene. “I should have been more careful. I should have woken you up.”
The anger and recrimination in his voice tempered Imogene’s own feelings. “What happened, anyway?”
“I stopped to use the refresher. You were asleep, and I thought they were, too. I took the rifles, of course, but they jumped me when I came out. I should have been more careful!” He drove his gauntleted fist into his hand again.
“It’s not your fault,” Imogene said. “We should have tied them up or something. I trusted them too much.”
Bruce just shook his head and turned to watch the Fire Ant disappear over a low rise. He sighed and looked over at Imogene. “Well, at least this solves one problem. I wasn’t looking forward to explaining why we were in a PAF crawler.”
“Except now we’re out here on foot, with no real idea where we are, and no weapons.” Imogene couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice.
“All valid points.” The stag nodded. “Still, we’re alive. And as long as we are, I don’t intend to give up trying.”
No, they couldn’t give up. Not with everyone left at Borda counting on them to bring back help. Pulling her gaze away from the departing crawler, she took stock of their surroundings.
It was still dark. Sunrise wasn’t for another few days, but enough starlight shone for her suit’s night vision. They were in a wide, flat-bottomed valley, bounded by rolling hills to the east and steeper mountains to the west. The usual scattering of craters marked the gray dust, but none large enough to hamper navigation. The trackway they’d been following snaked away to the north. The Fire Ant reappeared from the dip it had passed through, forming a bead of light along the rutted gray thread.
“Do we follow them?” she asked. “Or head off on our own somewhere?”
Bruce shrugged. “No chance we’ll catch up, but staying on the road is a good idea. It still goes to Bellot.”
“Logical.” Imogene took one last look around the empty valley, then started the long walk north.
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-eight, where what goes around, goes around.
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