MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
LOST AND FOUND
Time didn’t matter on the dusty abandoned road. Imogene’s chronometer ticked off the hours, but in the weeks-long lunar night, they were nothing but numbers. When she and Bruce grew tired, they stopped. When they were rested, they moved on.
The meteoroid showers had died away to almost nothing, for which she was extremely grateful. But no sign of habitation appeared either, and as the days and kilometres shuffled past, fear festered in her belly.
All the gray valleys and craters looked the same, and without satellite positioning, she couldn’t tell where on the map they were. They had to be in the mountains northeast of Santbech, but there was no telling if Bellot lay just over the next ridge, or hundreds of kilometres distant.
If it was hundreds, they were dead. They could never cover that kind of distance. All she could do was hope her hasty actions hadn’t doomed them both.
Late on the third day, her bounding low-gravity strides brought her to the summit of a gentle saddle. They’d been climbing for hours, but she hadn’t guessed just how high they were until the next valley spread itself out before them.
Imogene stopped, weary body refusing to follow as her eyes traced the way ahead. Far in the distance, craggy mountains rose on the valley’s other side, and the road stretched cruelly towards them, barren and lonely for as far as she could see.
Falling to her knees, she hugged herself tightly and closed her eyes.
Bruce took another few loping bounds before he realized she was no longer by his side. He turned, mirror finished visor seeking her out. “Imogene? What’s wrong?”
She squeezed her eyes shut tighter. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. If you’re tired, we’ll rest.”
“Tired? Gods yes, I’m tired.” Her muzzle split in an anguished grin. “Tired of walking, tired of watching my friends die, tired of everything I do falling apart. Yes, I’m tired. And I’m sorry.”
Bruce knelt beside her, put one hand on her armored shoulder. “You’re not the one who was awake when Ming-Xue and Omar pulled their stunt. It wasn’t your fault.”
Imogene opened her eyes again and snorted. “No? That’s just the latest, anyway. Did I ever tell you how I ended up in the infantry?”
Bruce mutely shook his head.
“The Navy dumped me there after I was too seasick to walk straight. My boyfriend had even pulled strings so we’d be on the same ship, and I spent our last two weeks together throwing up all over him.”
“That’s not your fault either, you know.”
Imogene looked back down at the dust between her knees. “Yeah? How about waiting for him like a fool while he screwed some rabbit? And then running away to the moon when I found out? Does that prove I’m useless, or should I add throwing myself at Victor, too?”
“Damn it, Imogene, you’re not useless.” Bruce’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “You’re special in more ways than I can count, and Victor was a fool not to see it.”
After an uncomfortable pause, he spoke again. “I like you. A lot. I didn’t want to push you, after Victor, and since we left Pons it’s hardly been the right time. Now’s not much better, but I have to say it: I think I love you.”
Lost for words, Imogene stared up at him. A warmth began melting its way through her, but she clamped it down before it could carry her away. “Really? You’re not just saying that to get me moving again?”
“If I was, would I admit it?” She could hear his familiar, wry smile. “But no, I’m not. You’re beautiful, and getting to know you as a person only compounded the issue.”
“Oh, Bruce...” She reached up, taking his hand from her shoulder between both of her own.
That pleasant warmth trickled back into her chest, and she probed after its source. She hadn’t realized how much she’d come to trust and rely on the rust-colored stag. They were already partners in a way she’d never felt with anyone before. And if the fluttering feeling that came along with the warmth was any indication, there was more at work than simple camaraderie.
She gave his gauntlet a squeeze. “I like you too, and I’m so sorry I dragged us both out here to die—”
“No.” He used their linked hands to pull her upright. “I won’t let that happen. We’re going to go north, and we’re going to find help, and no one is allowed to die until I say so!”
A smile tugged at the corner of her lips, and Imogene shook her head. “And who could argue with that? All right then, north it is.”
* * *
The mountains ahead were painted a searing white by the rising sun. The valley still lay in deep shadow, and the contrast hampered visibility. They were well out into the flats now, and the distance to the mountains shrank steadily. As did their supplies. Water and food they could ration, but there was nothing to be done about power. Only one spare power pack remained, and while Imogene’s read-out showed green for now, it wouldn’t be long before both of them needed it.
A flicker of light sparked ahead. Probably just a stray bit of glare from the sunlit peaks. But then it came again, longer this time. Hope she’d thought dead blossomed in Imogene’s chest.
Bruce’s graceful bounds came to a ragged stop. “Did you see that?”
“Headlights.” Her excitement bled into the word. “And coming this way.”
They stood still, watching, but the light didn’t reappear.
“Could you tell how far...?” Bruce asked tentatively.
She didn’t take her eyes off the horizon. “It couldn’t be too far. If they’re headed south, they should be here in a couple minutes.”
“Hmm.” Bruce agreed. “Do you suppose we should get off the road? At least until we have some idea who they are?”
His caution brought Imogene back to the reality of their situation. “I don’t know. This could be the only chance we get. When that vehicle leaves, we need to be on it. One way or another.”
“Surrender? But what if it’s a tank or something? No room for prisoners.” Another flare of light erupted, and he paused. “We better decide fast, whatever we do.”
Imogene glanced up at the approaching lights, then down at the road. “I’ve still got my demo stuff. Not enough to kill a tank, but I could shake them up. Make them stop.”
She pulled off her pack and dug out her two 300-gram blocks of putty explosive. Detonators pushed easily into the blue putty, and she synced them to a remote trigger, then covered them with a paper-thin layer of dust. No harm done if the oncoming vehicle was friendly, or large enough to accept prisoners, but if it was a PAF tank she could set off the explosives and immobilize it.
She turned to Bruce. “We need someplace to hide until they’re on top of it.”
“How about that?” He pointed to a mid-size crater a dozen metres to their left. Without waiting for an answer, he took a running leap. He cleared several metres before leaving a single pair of boot prints. He pushed off again, making another three metres before losing momentum and returning to normal length bounds.
Imogene didn’t have his raw power, but she copied his technique, leaving only scattered prints to mark their passage. With luck, whoever was coming wouldn’t notice until it was too late.
Deeper and fresher than it had looked, irregular crags studded the crater’s rim. Only a sprinkling of pale dust covered the dark bedrock. Imogene crouched behind an outcrop that offered a good view of the road, but shielded her from the approaching lights.
A dim glow crept over the road, then brightened as its source drew close. She flipped off the safety and rested her thumb on the firing switch. A flash of yellow headlamps burst into view. She tensed, squinting against the glare, then relaxed with a sigh.
This was no PAF tank. The antiquated silver crawler trundled along on six large wheels, and bore a UNA crest. Emblazoned below the crest were the full moon and crossed core drill and rock-pick of the UNA Selenographical Institute.
Bruce sat back and laughed. “Geologists! We’re hiding from geologists!”
Imogene flipped the safety back on and snorted. “Better safe than sorry, I guess. We’d better call them before they get out of comm range.”
Past her explosives now, the crawler rolled away at a good clip.
“Right.” Bruce toggled to a general frequency. “Hello, selenographical crawler. Are you reading?”
There was a pause, and the crawler slowed to a stop.
“We read you.” The voice that answered was strong and male. “Who is this?”
“Private Bruce Andersen, UNA infantry. My friend and I have been stranded out here, and could really use a lift.”
The geologist chuckled. “I think we can arrange something. What’s your location?”
“Just off the road, about two hundred metres behind you.”
“Got it. Good thing you called, we’d have driven right on by.”
“Yeah. It’s not too healthy for infantry to be seen first these days.”
“I can imagine.” The geologist’s tone turned grim.
Relief oozed through Imogene as she retrieved her explosives, then watched the crawler turn around and came back. Climbing into the airlock, she barely waited for the pressure to rise before pulling off her helmet. Six days trapped in a suit was about five and a half too long.
Beside her, Bruce seemed to share her sentiments. He removed his helmet too, and gave her a quick smile.
The airlock let out directly into the crew compartment. Only the front two of six seats were in use, and their occupants peered back curiously.
“Just the two of you?” The golden retriever on the right was the one they’d spoken to. He looked to be approaching the far side of middle-age, and his fur was more yellow-blond than gold. He wore a jumpsuit patterned with bold blue and yellow checkers.
The other geologist was a brown rodent of some sort. Imogene thought pack-rat, but couldn’t be sure without seeing his tail. He too wore a one-piece suit, his a solid yellow.
“Just the two of us,” Bruce confirmed. “I’m Bruce, and this is Imogene Haartz.”
“William Palmer,” The retriever said. “And Louie Hesler. He doesn’t talk much, so don’t let it bother you.”
Louie bobbed his head, then turned back to the controls. He hadn’t bothered to shut down the power plant, and wasted no time getting under way again.
The crawler lurched, encouraging Imogene to sit down.
William shot an apologetic smile. “So what are you two doing out here? We haven’t seen hide nor hair of anyone for two hundred klicks.”
“It’s kind of a long story,” Imogene said. “Suffice to say some people thought they needed our crawler more than we did.”
“That’s cold.” The retriever frowned. “Our station’s been cut off for a couple weeks now, but I didn’t think things had gotten that bad.” He licked his lips, still frowning. “You wouldn’t have any news, would you? We’re headed for Santbech to try and find out what’s happening.”
“You don’t know...?” Imogene met his earnest brown eyes and trailed off. “Santbech is gone. Two, three weeks ago now. I don’t have details, but the PAF were all through this area. They seem to have pulled back for now...”
William sighed and covered his eyes. “It really is war then? We weren’t sure.” He sat silent for a moment, then, “What about Earth?”
“We haven’t heard anything since the first day.”
“I see.” He pursed his lips. “Louie? Get this thing turned around. We can head back to base and then try for Messier or Lindbergh.”
“Actually,” Bruce cut in before the rat could comply, “we’ve got some friends stranded farther south. If this rig could take fifteen or twenty, it might mean life or death for them.”
Louie had started to slow the crawler, but now looked over at William.
The retriever narrowed his eyes. “Where, exactly?”
“Borda. It’s a little south of Santbech.”
“I know where it is.” His ears flopped as he gave an irritable shake of his head. “But if there are PAF loose, we don’t have any kind of weapons or armor.”
“We didn’t see anyone coming north, but there’s no guarantees.” Bruce locked gazes with the geologist. “Borda’s in bad shape. Before we lost the crawler, we were out looking for help.”
“And you found us.” William stared down at the floor, then sighed. “We can make Borda in maybe seven hours. Looks like you’ve got yourself a rescue party.”
* * *
“Unidentified vehicle, halt and state your business.”
The challenge crackled through the crew compartment, startling Imogene awake. She didn’t recognize the voice, and wondered if their saviors had gotten lost. But the crater ahead was definitely Borda. The sun had finally risen, and in its glare the two ruined railgun emplacements were unmistakable.
“Halt, or you will be fired upon. This is your last warning.”
Imogene’s stomach churned. That clipped military tone didn’t belong to anyone they’d left at Borda.
Already slowing, Louie stopped dead, throwing everyone against their restraints.
William leaned forward and hit a button. “This is UNA Selenographical Institute transport 517-A. We were told there were survivors at Borda in need of assistance.”
“Acknowledged. Standby.” There was a long pause, then their unseen interrogator spoke again. “You’re cleared to enter the crater. Stay on the road and follow all instructions.”
“Wilco. Thank you.” William flicked off the comm and waved Louie to take them forward. With one ear cocked inquiringly, he looked back at Imogene. “Friend of yours?”
Imogene just shook her head. They crested the rim of the crater and got their first look inside.
Imogene’s jaw dropped. Gray camo-painted crawlers packed the flats around the silver dome. Close to fifty UNA vehicles, mostly tanks with some Paladin IFVs and a lone mobile command unit. Although a few bore combat damage, all looked fully functional. Rescue had come to Borda all right, but it hadn’t needed Imogene’s help.
“Well, somebody’s still organized,” William said dryly. “Maybe they’ll have some news.”
“I hope so,” Imogene said. Rejoining an organized force should have been a relief, but somehow the sight of so many undamaged vehicles made her uneasy. After focusing so long on simple survival, this reminder of the larger conflict seemed surreal.
One of the tanks turned to track them with its turret as they descended into the crater. It let them draw to within half a kilometre, then a new voice came over the comm. “That’s close enough. Stop and exit the vehicle. General Slate wants to see all of you inside the base.”
“Will do,” William acknowledged. He waited while Louie brought them to a halt, then stood up. “Looks like we’re in for a bit of a hike.”
A Paladin passed them about halfway to the dome, headed out towards their parked crawler. Looking back over her shoulder, Imogene saw a group of soldiers dismount and begin inspecting the geologist’s vehicle. Trust was apparently in short supply here—not that she blamed them.
The hole Aaron had cut in the dome’s wall had been enlarged, and they had no trouble entering. A pair of guards stationed just inside directed them to the lower levels.
Imogene stepped out of the airlock and flipped open her visor. Clean, fresh air filled her nostrils, and somewhere nearby a portable generator purred. The corridors teamed with dozens of ivory-suited vehicle crewmen poking around. A few carried supplies, but most seemed to just be enjoying the chance to get out of their crawlers.
An officious badger with a sergeant’s rank tabs waited for them. She took Imogene and the others to a storeroom where a clump of officers stood around a makeshift table. Maps littered the surface, along with datapads and empty beverage containers.
A handsome mottled-brown wolf looked up. His dark gray Armor Corps uniform bore a general’s gold stars on the collar, and the hard lines of his face demanded obedience.
“You’re the geologists?” His gaze slid over William and Louie, then stopped on Imogene with a frown. “And infantry? Why aren’t you with your unit?”
Imogene straightened her already stiff posture. “We’re all that’s left of it, sir. Us and two others who stayed here.”
His tail swished. “You’re the two that cut off on your own, then? Interesting.” He turned back to William. “I’m commandeering your crawler. We need it to move wounded and supplies. We’re short on manpower too, so I want you in an ad-hoc infantry squad, unless you have expertise to make yourselves useful elsewhere?”
Both geologists shook their heads.
“Dismissed then, but stay in the base. Someone will find you when we need you.”
Imogene shifted uncomfortably. The general’s last comment was clearly directed only at the geologists.
After William and Louie left, the general addressed the badger who had brought them here. “Find Porter and that rabbit. I want to see them in my office.”
Imogene reached up to finger the bullet hole in her armor’s chest. With a chain of command reestablished, Lauren wasn’t likely to try that again, was she? A hopeful thought, but the ache in her ribs made it hard to believe.
The general’s gaze fell on her and Bruce. “You two, come with me.”
He led them to one of the abandoned offices and made himself comfortable behind the desk. He looked up at them with a neutral expression. “So, tell me why the two of you took it upon yourselves to leave.”
Imogene tried to find enough saliva to swallow the lump in her throat. She wished she knew what Lauren might have told him. It would make doing damage control easier.
Before she could screw up the courage to begin, Bruce took charge. “We went to find help. Life support here was compromised, and there wasn’t enough air for everyone.”
“And you took two PAF prisoners?”
Imogene bit down on her tongue. How badly had Lauren twisted things? And what direction? To justify shooting her, or cover it up?
“Yes, sir,” Bruce said.
“But you didn’t bring them back. Or the Fire Ant.”
“No, sir.” Bruce drew a deep breath. “There was an accident in the mountains. We lost control of the crawler. Imogene and I managed to get out, but the PAF didn’t.”
All true. Sort of. But would he believe it? Imogene kept her gaze locked above the general’s head. The less she offered, the better.
One of the general’s ears flicked. “Tragic. And the crawler? I need more armor.”
Bruce shook his head. “It’s unrecoverable.”
As he went on to describe meeting William and Louie, the badger sergeant returned with Lauren and Alexei in tow.
Imogene snuck a look at Lauren. The lynx’s eyes narrowed, but she kept her expression neutral and faced the general. Beside her, Alexei gave Imogene a tight smile. He had a healing cut across his nose, and what might have been a bruise darkening the ring of pink flesh around one eye.
Imogene’s lips tightened. Things couldn’t have gone well for him after she and Bruce left on her boondoggle.
When Bruce finished, the general fixed Lauren with his sharp, golden eyes. “Are they trustworthy?”
“I don’t know.” She glanced sideways at Imogene, tone professional and face still unreadable. “If you asked me an hour ago, I’d have said no. Honestly, I never expected to see them again.”
Alexei’s ears pricked. “But they did come back! With help, like they promised.”
Ignoring his outburst, the general continued. “Are you willing to work with them? We’re desperately short on infantry, and you four have experience together.”
Imogene cringed inwardly at that, but fought to keep her face vacant. Lauren must not have told him everything.
Lauren’s slit-pupiled eyes locked with Imogene’s for a long moment. Finally she nodded. “Yes, sir. If that’s what needs to happen.”
“Good answer, Porter. You’ve done well holding things together here. Now you’ve got yourself a field promotion and a squad. I’ll give you the two geologists, and you can take your pick from the other survivors. Talk to Lieutenant Duren about supplies and transport. That will be all.”
Leaving the general’s office, Imogene’s nerves relaxed just a little. Surrounded by the bright lights and bustle, things that had seemed logical in the darkness of a dying base now sounded dangerously close to treason. Thankfully the general didn’t seem interested in pursuing that angle. With a little luck, it might even be forgotten in this whole hellish mess.
Alexei clapped Imogene on the shoulder. “It’s good to have you back. If these Armor Corps fellows hadn’t shown up, you really would have saved our tails.”
“I’m glad you all made out okay too.” She smiled back. “What about Aaron? How is he?”
“Better. General Slate has some real doctors, and they think he’ll be okay.”
On Imogene’s other side, Bruce let out a relieved breath. “That’s good to hear. I guess everything here is getting better. I hardly recognize this place with the lights on.”
“Quite an improvement, huh?” Alexei twitched his pink nose. “Since the general got here yesterday, things seem a hundred times better.”
“Why are they here?” Bruce asked. “Did the sat-comms start working?”
Alexei glanced at Lauren. She didn’t answer, so he went on, “No. Lauren got the antenna fixed up, but General Slate was looking for fuel. I hear they’re what’s left of four or five companies that got pushed south out of Mare Nectaris. The general was regrouping to try and reclaim Santbech, but the PAF had already gotten their burrow busters in.”
A queasy feeling rose in Imogene’s gut. Deep bases like Santbech took a lot of killing. With the entrances crushed and surface defenses destroyed by the missile strike she and her squadmates had witnessed, it would have been a race between the defenders tunneling out and the PAF sappers with their drilling rigs and high-yield annihilation bombs.
“Everyone was gone by the time General Slate’s column arrived,” Alexei said. “Just drill holes and craters.”
A dark silence fell, then Bruce shook himself. “Well, at least he managed to save you guys. What’s the plan going forward?”
Alexei’s ears perked up. “That’s the good news. The PAF aren’t pressing any deeper. The general figures their command and control is just as screwed up as ours, and that they’re running out of supplies. Now that he’s got more fuel and a chance to regroup, we’re gonna head north and hit them back.”
“What about the bigger picture?” Imogene asked. “Any word from Command? Or Earth?”
“Nope. Near as I can figure, we’re still cut off. They said they’d been past three or four other bases and we were the first one with survivors.”
Bruce frowned. “Damn. Have they seen anyone since they came out of Nectaris?”
“I don’t think so,” Alexei said. “Why?”
“I just wish we had some idea how bad things are,” Bruce said. “If we’re some of the only people left, it would be bloody stupid to keep on fighting.”
Ahead of them, Lauren’s ears twitched. She stopped and turned to glower at the stag. “Shut up. I heard more than enough of your pessimistic drivel before, and I’m not going to put up with any more. We’re still in the service, in case you didn’t notice. If someone higher up says fight, you bloody well fight, and let them worry about if it’s a good idea.”
Bruce blinked rapidly. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t fight. I was just thinking what it would mean if we did.”
“Well keep it to yourself. Nobody needs to hear that defeatist crap.” She flicked her dark tufted ears and turned away.
Bruce shook his head, but fell in behind her without further comment.
Imogene swallowed hard. General Slate might have taken Lauren in hand, but how far did his control extend? All that stopped her from demanding some sort of transfer was the fear of drawing more attention to her botched departure. Seen in the wrong light, that sort of thing ended more than just your career.
She cast another glance at Lauren and wondered if getting away from her might be worth the risk.
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-nine, where order reasserts itself.
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