MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
SHADES OF GRAY
The new members of Sergeant Lauren Porter’s squad received a motley assortment of scavenged armor and equipment. Imogene was glad she only needed a new rifle. Poorly fitted armor was better than none at all, but in a firefight, an awkward movement could cost a life.
She and the other original members—just Lauren, Alexei and Bruce now—sat around the room they’d been given, helping William, Louie, and a ferret named Jessica get up to speed on their new equipment. Scott the raccoon filled out the eighth spot in the new squad, but as an infantryman he already had his own gear.
The door to the corridor opened, and Imogene looked up.
“Fuck,” said the panda standing in the doorway. “They didn’t tell me it was you.”
“Jared?” A sour taste twisted Imogene’s mouth. “What are you doing here?”
Jared shrugged. “My job. War kinda trumps disciplinary action.”
Lauren’s lip curled. “It’s a war all right, but aren’t you on the wrong side?”
He blew air out under his tongue in a rude noise. “What, you thought I’d defect the first chance I got? I hate those PAF assholes more than you ever will.”
“I doubt that, bamboo-boy,” the lynx spat.
Jared’s muzzle bunched, but he kept his temper. “That’s right; I’m a panda. You have any idea what it’s like going through life with everyone convinced you’re out to get them? Wasn’t for the PAF, we pandas would get as much respect as everyone else. So fuck them, and fuck you. The only difference I see is I’m allowed to kill them.”
He turned to Imogene. “Come on. The general’s got a bunch of bombs he wants set up.”
“Not so fast.” Lauren stood up and thrust an open hand towards the panda. “Let’s see some orders.”
Jared barked a cynical laugh. “You think they’re cutting formal orders for anything anymore? Give him or the lieutenant a call if you don’t believe me.”
Lauren’s eyes narrowed. She pulled out a datapad and slid her claws over the screen. A moment later a muffled voice buzzed from the directional speaker and Lauren answered. “Yes, sir. We’ve got a panda down here claiming he’s got orders to set demolition charges. Is that true?”
Whoever was on the other end buzzed again, and Lauren nodded. “Yes, sir!” She folded the datapad and jerked her muzzle at Imogene. “It’s legit. Make sure he doesn’t screw anything up.”
Jared glowered and stomped out into the corridor, forcing Imogene to hurry after him. After Lauren was out of earshot, he slowed and turned his round, black and white head to look at Imogene. “So, you four are here. Fiona make it, too?”
She shook her head.
“Damn. Waste of a great piece of ass.” He shoved open the door to a storeroom and waved at a pile of crates that hadn’t been there a week ago. “Grab a box. I’ll get the detonators.”
The red labels on the crates marked them as bulk putty explosives. In the low gravity she had no trouble hefting the hundred-kilo box and following Jared into one of the fuel bunker passages radiating out from the main part of the base.
“What exactly are we doing?” she asked when they reached the first blast-proof door.
“What d’you think? We’re setting the base up to blow. Can’t risk the PAF getting all this fuel.” He set down his box of detonators and swiped a key-card over the fuel bunker’s lock. The wide lithcrete and metal door hissed, then swung open. Lights came on inside, revealing long shelving units stacked with the small off-white cubes of stabilized antimatter fuel.
Imogene set down her own crate and pulled off the lid. A five-year-old’s jackpot of sky-blue modeling clay filled the metal case, neatly cut into 500-gram blocks.
Jared passed her a Type-3 Kinetic Shock Sensitive detonator. Good for improvised demolitions, they didn’t need wires, and weren’t bothered by radio jamming or poor reception. The shock from any nearby blast served as the triggering mechanism. Of course that was their main drawback, too: close kin to landmines, they were bloody dangerous and hard to locate and remove.
“Set up thirty kilos in five or six charges and hide them in with the fuel or behind the glow panels,” Jared instructed. “I’ll work on the next bunker.”
She frowned. “Shouldn’t we just rig it to collapse the access passage rather than trying to demolish the whole place?”
“Nah, nowhere to hide ’em out here. Besides, this way we might get the fuel to blow, too.”
Imogene suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “Stabilized antimatter is non-reactive. You need special equipment to break it down.”
Jared laughed. “That’s what the instruction manuals say. Normally they’re even right, but it’s not the whole story. Enclosed like this, we might be able to hit it hard enough to get a chain reaction going. Even if we can’t, it should bring down the roof and contaminate everything.” He gave the blue block he was working on an affectionate pat. “I hope it does work. It’d be one hell of a bang.”
She cast a wary look down the long shelves of white cubes. There was a lot of trapped energy here, and this was only one of the bunkers... Could he be right? She struggled to remember how fuel cubes worked. Something about magnetic bubbles and nano-polymers, but the details eluded her.
The first five crates of explosive took care of the fuel bunkers. The sixth and last went in the dome itself, broken into small charges and well hidden.
That last part rankled with Imogene. Kinetic sensitive detonators were dangerous enough without concealing their location. But the general’s orders were clear: rigged to blow and well concealed. Imogene had to clench her teeth and remind herself just how thin the ice between her and a court-martial already was. Now was definitely not the time to question or disobey any more orders.
“That’s all of them,” she said to Jared when the last soft blue bomb had been tucked behind a utility access panel. “What’s your plan for the primary detonator? Some kind of booby-trap?”
“The general’s leaving the worst wounded behind to keep an eye on things. I’ll set them up a little manual-triggered device. General’s telling them the charges will just mess up the fuel bunkers.” Jared chuckled. “Poor fucks; no clue they’re a living fuse.”
The unease in Imogene’s chest clenched into an icy knot.
“Just so.” A calm voice from behind them made her jump. General Slate stood in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest. “And if you don’t want to join them, you’d better keep your maw shut. What’s our status?”
“Almost done, sir.” Jared’s spine stiffened and he clasped his hands behind his back, looking more like a soldier than Imogene had ever seen him.
She straightened too, twisting her face and thoughts into the careful neutrality she’d learned in Basic: don’t think about anything, especially how much you despise the officer standing in front of you.
The general’s hard gold eyes held Jared for a moment. “Good. Get suited up and meet me outside. I’ve got another project for you two.”
* * *
People in ash-white suits swarmed among the parked tanks, hauling supplies out of the base and redistributing ammunition. Amid the chaos, General Slate’s dark medium-duty armor stood out. He waved Imogene and Jared to follow him around the dome.
“Shake a leg,” the wolf said. “We’re moving out in ninety minutes.”
Even more vehicles filled the flats on the dome’s other side, including a bedraggled tactical missile carrier.
Like its PAF cousins she’d seen destroy Santbech, this carrier was a long, boxy creature, and had probably been ugly even before war made it into a monster. The cowl protecting the missile rack had been ripped away, leaving maybe a metre of jagged metal near the hinge. Holes the size of her fist pocked the armored driver’s compartment, as well as the lone remaining missile.
General Slate slapped the missile’s nose cone. “I need you to take out the warhead and set it up with a remote trigger.”
Imogene choked. “You want us to dismantle it?” She cast another look at the shredded missile casing. “You’re lucky it hasn’t blown up already!”
The general’s cold silver faceplate turned to regard her. “The warhead is undamaged. Now get to work.”
Imogene had never worked on anything like this. The theory was simple—a magnetic shell holding a single gram of anti-hydrogen atoms like an overgrown metallic walnut. It didn’t take anything special to break the shell and release the demon within.
Working together carefully, she and Jared removed the dull metal sphere from its shock-isolators. Then it took only minutes to mold a block of the blue putty explosive around it and add a radio detonator.
“Fuck,” Jared said when they were done. “I like to blow shit up, but this is a little too much.”
“Yeah.” She heard a quiver in her voice that had thankfully been absent from her hands.
The panda chuckled. “At least you know it’s gonna really ruin some PAF’s day.”
Imogene closed her eyes and wished the helmet would let her rub her forehead. She’d gotten into demolitions to breach doors, and knock down communications towers. Not to destroy bases staffed by friendly wounded, or cobble together IEDs with enough firepower to level a small city. She didn’t want to guess how General Slate planned to use it.
They loaded the weapon into a cardboard field ration box—mercifully assigned to a different crawler than Imogene—and joined the rest of the company for the trek north.
The relief she’d felt the last time they left Borda didn’t return. A cold lump of dread took its place, settling deep in the pit of her stomach. They might be traveling with a large, well supplied column this time, but that did nothing to ease her discomfort.
Last time they’d been looking for help. Now they were looking for a fight.
Bruce sat beside her amid the boxes in the cargo truck carrying their squad. His strong, quiet presence anchored her, giving her the strength to hold on.
She didn’t know how to act towards him since he’d admitted his love. In some ways nothing had changed, but at the same time everything was different. She felt like she was back in high school, second guessing everything she said or did. It was annoying and exhilarating, and she wished they had more privacy to explore her feelings properly.
Still, it felt good to have him close.
* * *
Two days out from Borda, General Slate’s scouts spotted a company-size group of PAF vehicles. His larger force surged forward to engage, and in the back of their truck, Imogene’s heart pounded. But fortunately—or not, she wasn’t sure—the smaller PAF unit fled. Undeterred, General Slate gave chase, following them into a twisting maze of interconnected craters and tight, cleft-like valleys.
As the minutes ticked into hours, Imogene’s pulse returned to normal. The column’s faster pace jostled her and the others around the windowless cargo compartment, which in the low gravity took on an unsettling resemblance to a ship in high seas. With each rolling bump she’d float up from her crate and take several seconds to come back down. She locked her jaw against the rising nausea and held on.
Finally the truck lurched to a stop. Imogene sighed. She’d managed not to puke, and—
“Ambush!” Lauren’s voice filled the squad channel. “They’re shooting up our tanks. Out and cover!”
Imogene had no clear memory of leaving the truck. Just a jumbled impression of panicked movement, then blinding sunlight flooding down into a narrow defile between two hills.
Sparks crawled over the ravaged hulk of their rearguard tank. Static spiked across the comm with each blue-white flash as the tank’s capacitors discharged in a mechanical death rattle.
Shrapnel pinged Imogene’s flank, and she bounded for cover. A heap of boulders welcomed her into their shadows.
Trapped in the narrow valley, General Slate’s tanks churned the gray dust.
A rocket flashed down from the ridge across from Imogene, lancing into the convoy. The truck ahead of theirs disintegrated in a storm of razor-edged metal.
Adrenaline screamed along Imogene’s veins. She dropped flat, fighting back panic. If they hit the truck carrying the annihilation bomb, the whole valley would be scorched into radioactive slag.
Static cracked as the general’s tanks opened fire. Round after round of fragmentation shells pounded into the ridge where the rocket had come from. Short-lived clouds of debris shot up as each blast shredded everything it touched.
No more rockets came, but Imogene kept her head down anyway. No way she was risking herself without a bloody good reason. Eventually, the crackles and flashes from the shelling stopped, and she peeked out to see their convoy still mostly intact, scattered across the valley’s floor.
“Everybody up,” Lauren said. “They think they got ’em, but we’re moving up to do a sweep.”
Imogene slithered from her sheltered pocket and joined her squadmates in a loose double line. With a few dozen low-gravity bounds, they loped past General Slate’s command crawler.
Bits of metal littered the ground, radiating from the carcass of their lead tank, now charred and blocking the road ahead. Tension started building in Imogene’s guts again. The PAF had bottled them up, trapped between the two ruined tanks and the steep hillsides. But why hadn’t they followed through on the attack?
Bruce cleared his throat. “What are we looking for?”
“Whatever shot those missiles,” Lauren said. “Probably shoulder-fired coming from the rocks like that.” She waved to the ridge the tankers had been pounding. “When we get up there, we’ll find out.”
“But what if they didn’t get all of them?” Jessica squeaked.
Lauren made a throwing away motion with her non-rifle hand. “Then we’ll clear ’em out. That’s what infantry do.”
Imogene’s fingers tightened on her weapon. Playing bait to protect more valuable armored vehicles was her least favorite part of the foot soldier’s mandate. PAF tactics called for at least a squad’s worth of infantry on a skirmishing attack like this.
They fanned out, Bruce to Imogene’s left and William on her right. The hike to the ridge left her itching to bolt for the nearest cover and hide. Thousands of inky shadows leered at her, with no way to tell when a new attack would turn the valley into a killing field.
Teeth gritted, she plowed onward.
Near the middle of where the tankers had been shooting, Alexei found part of a gray-armored leg. A few less identifiable bits turned up too, along with a single unfired rocket. Lauren called in their find while the others widened the search.
“Nothing,” Bruce reported from farther along the ridge. “Looks like just the guy with the rockets. Strange they’d leave him unsupported like that, though.”
Lauren’s helmet bobbed in a slow nod. “They’re probably low on troops, or just trying to slow us down rather than cause real damage.”
“That last part worked, anyway,” said Bruce. “If we have to check for skirmishers we’ll be lucky to make more than a few klicks an hour.”
Imogene and her squadmates searched a kilometre or so along the valley while the destroyed tank was shoved out of the road. A little later, another infantry squad moved up to relieve them.
Relieve was definitely the right word as far as Imogene was concerned. Adrenaline had given way to a cold sweat and fluttering stomach that refused to settle. Some of the others ate when they returned to the truck, but all she could manage was a little water.
Overall, the column made better time than Bruce’s gloomy estimate. Long sections of the narrow mountain canyons were clear of good hiding places, and it was possible to move forward with minimal delay. But inevitably they would round another corner and find the road ahead bracketed with mounds of loose rock and boulders. Then the infantry would dismount and move ahead on foot, clearing the way metre by airless gray metre.
It was nerve-wracking at first, walking methodically forward, never knowing if the next pool of shadow hid an enemy, or only more rocks. But no one could maintain that level of tension indefinitely. After a time Imogene’s anxiety settled into the background—always there, but no longer dominating her every thought.
* * *
“No, it’s true,” Jessica protested. “All the cute guys up here are either spoken for, or total jerks.”
Imogene couldn’t suppress a smile. From the way the ferret said “jerks” she’d had ample experience with this latter type. Shaking her head, Imogene picked her way forward. She was about halfway up the boulder studded rock-slide they were searching, with the squad spread out at regular intervals above and below her.
“Now, take you.” Jessica waved at Alexei. “I’m sure someone like you already has a special someone...?”
“I—no. Not any more.” Alexei looked downslope towards Louie and Imogene. “What about you, Louie? You got something warm waiting for you?”
The geologist just shrugged.
Jessica snickered. “I bet he does. ‘He with most says least.’ Am I right, boy-oh?”
“Oh, leave him alone.” Imogene glanced over at the rat. “He’s shy.”
Louie hunched his shoulders. “Not shy. Just don’t talk when I got nothin’ to say.” He continued forwards, moving up into the gap between two boulders. He stumbled then, and fell back the way he had come.
“Clumsy, too.” Jessica giggled. “Come on, no sleeping on the job.” She made a graceful bound, coming to rest beside the fallen rodent. No sooner had she landed than she tumbled backwards too.
It was almost comical, and Imogene started to laugh. Then she noticed the bullet hole in Jessica’s helmet.
Cursing, she threw herself flat. “Contact! Mid-slope, west side. Louie and Jessica are both down.”
“Everybody, cover!” Lauren’s voice overrode the scattered exclamations. “Where’s it coming from?”
“I don’t know.” Imogene slithered into the shade of a large boulder. “They were ahead of me and uphill. I didn’t see the shooter.”
“Anyone else?” No one spoke, and Lauren growled. “Right. Forward carefully guys, and stay low.”
Imogene checked her rifle’s safety catch was off, then crawled on knees and elbows towards Louie. Jessica was clearly dead, but she had to make sure of the quiet rat. She rolled him over, and grimaced at what she saw.
A hole the size of her thumb punched clean through his breastplate. The titanium composite and ballistic fabrics should have stopped a single round from an assault rifle. Whoever was up ahead must have something more powerful. Not surprising for a rearguard skirmisher, but she called it in anyway before resuming her advance.
Avoiding the gap where Louie had been shot, she circled to the right and down. The rocks that way were larger, and if she stayed in their shadows she might remain unseen. A dozen metres later the cover ended, and she stopped to survey what lay ahead. The rock slide seemed more active here. Steeper, with nothing larger than a football for thirty or forty metres.
“I think I have them.” William’s voice held no emotion. “Hundred and fifty metres ahead, clump of jagged boulders three-quarters of the way up. There was movement, but it’s stopped.”
Imogene spotted the formation in question. One house-size rock in the middle had split in two, and a heap of smaller fragments masked its base. Someone dug in amongst them would have plenty of cover, along with a commanding view of the canyon.
“I see it,” Lauren said several seconds later. “Any indication of other positions?”
“No. If they had a proper setup we’d be dead by now.”
“Can you move up on them without being seen? It doesn’t look good here along the bottom.”
“I think so,” William said, tone still flat. “There’s some larger rocks at the top of this clear area.”
“Okay. Bruce, get up to William’s position, then both of you head over the top. The rest of us will see what we can do down here. Imogene, what’s your position?”
“On the edge of the clear spot. I’ve got a good line of fire up into the jagged rocks.”
“Stay there, then. You’re cover fire and support.”
“Got it.” Imogene repositioned herself, backing up slightly into deeper cover. She sighted in on the rock formation and waited, trying not to worry about Bruce. At least he was with the upper half of the pincher movement. That should help some.
The seconds crawled as the others moved forward. At one point a helmeted head bobbed into view. It disappeared before she could react, but confirmed the PAF position.
“We’re ready,” Bruce said at last. “What’s the plan?”
“Nothing fancy, just rush the bastards,” Lauren replied. “Imogene, light ’em up and try to keep their attention off us. Everyone got it?”
A chorus of affirmatives answered.
Imogene lined her crosshairs on where the helmet had disappeared, took a steadying breath, and squeezed the trigger.
Suppressive fire didn’t work as well in the silence of vacuum, but hopefully the spray of stone chips and dust would get his attention. She let off another long burst, then squirmed backwards to relocate. No point making herself too good of a target.
Over the comm came the confused shouting of her squadmates moving in for the kill. Then she saw them among the rocks and hastily took her finger off the trigger. At this range one gray suit looked much like another, and she wanted to be damn sure who she was shooting at.
It didn’t matter in the end. There was only one PAF soldier, and they made short work of him. He managed to kill Scott before the end, but that was the last thing he would ever do.
They scouted a bit farther to make sure the area was secure, then returned to deal with the bodies.
The nervous energy from the fight faded rapidly, leaving Imogene with a weary numbness. She felt grateful she hadn’t known Louie or the others well, and hated herself for feeling that way. They all had friends, families. Just because she didn’t know the details shouldn’t cheapen their loss. Should it?
She didn’t know. But when first their relief squad, then the remainder of the column arrived, all she wanted to do was crawl back inside their truck and forget.
Lauren was the last to enter the vehicle and snap up her visor. “We did a good job out there today.” She cast an approving gaze over her four remaining subordinates. “We protected the column, and gave those bloody pandas something to think about.”
Her praise fell flat in the cargo compartment’s dejected atmosphere.
Shaking his head, Alexei spoke quietly. “He wasn’t a panda. He had hoof-boots.”
“Whatever.” She shrugged. “The point is we did our job, and did it well.”
William growled, the emotionless facade he’d worn since the attack falling away. “Well? You call losing three people doing well?”
Lauren took off her helmet and frowned. “Yes. If he’d used those rockets, we could have lost three or even four tanks before they nailed him. It’s hard, but that’s our job.”
“Gods!” William said. “You don’t feel anything for them, do you? They’re dead! And for what?”
“Of course I feel for them.” The lynx flattened her ears. “But it’s our job to protect our territory. It’s everyone’s job—and there’s no more honorable way to die than defending our people. I’m sure your friend knew that, and would feel the same way.”
William snarled. “You think he gave a shit what color they paint these mountains on a map? You think anyone does? No. He’s dead, and it’s fucking pointless.”
“Pointless? So you’d rather let the PAF have their way then?”
“Frankly, yes. Odds are we’re all gonna die up here, and your general’s making sure it happens sooner rather than later. I wish I’d never gotten involved.”
Lauren’s fur bristled. “Well you are involved, gods damn it. So you’d bloody well better follow orders.”
“Or what? You’ll lock me up?” He gave a bitter laugh. “No, kitten, I’ll play along. But don’t ever tell me this is anything but a waste.”
He turned away, leaving Lauren quivering.
She stood there, jaw working silently before she wheeled on the others. “You all, check your equipment. I don’t want any surprise failures.” Not waiting to see if they complied, she stalked over to her seat and began dismantling her rifle.
Hastily, Imogene and the others followed suit. William might have been willing to risk the feline’s wrath, but Imogene didn’t see any point in antagonizing her further. They were at war, and even if the yellow dog was right, there was nothing any of them could do to stop things now.
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 thirty, where everything old is new again.
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