MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
The Armor Corps sergeant knelt, studying the dusty ruts left by a group of vehicles. Two sets of track diverged here, one heading into a steep-walled canyon on the left, and another following a less rugged path to the right. The tracks going left were the subject of the sergeant’s study.
Both sets looked the same to Imogene. She shifted from hoof to hoof, scanning the gray landscape. They’d secured the area before General Slate and his sergeant came to see the tracks, but yesterday’s sniper hunt had driven home the need for vigilance.
The sergeant stood up. “These *are *definitely newer. I can’t say how much with all the shit that’s been falling out of the sky lately, but the ones going right show a lot more scarring.”
“That’s what I said,” William agreed. “And if they went in there, there’s a good chance we can swing east and cut them off.”
General Slate looked from the tracks up to the geologist. “How do you figure that? The map’s got at least four other ways out of that canyon.”
“I’ve been all through these mountains. It looks passable on the maps, but the only places you’re getting vehicles in or out is here and an even narrower gap about forty klicks northeast.”
“You’re sure?” The general’s tone dared him to hedge.
William gave a firm nod. “Much as I’m enjoying your show, I’d rather cut to the finale.”
General Slate gazed up at the canyon mouth, then around at his massed tanks. Finally he turned to Lauren.
“Porter, your people and what’s left of Gamma Squad are gonna watch this entrance. Set up on that ridge.” He waved to a high knob two or three klicks south of the canyon mouth. “Make sure you take enough supplies for an extended EVA. I can’t spare any vehicles to stay here.”
His silver faceplate swung to Imogene. “Haartz, find Chey and get your special package planted out there where the canyon opens up. If they come out this way, you know what to do.”
Imogene’s stomach twisted. She knew what to do all right. The question was if it was a good idea. She glanced from the canyon to the ridge, trying to juggle the distance versus the antimatter bomb’s yield.
The general shifted, and she snapped her gaze back to him. “Yes, sir.” She nodded sharply and bounded off towards the supply truck carrying their bomb.
“We’ll take care of them, sir.” Not even the comm’s tinny speakers could scrub the blind certainty from Lauren’s voice. “What do you want us to do if they don’t come out?”
“I’m hoping we can drive them back into the trap here, but either way someone will return to pick you up. Hold position until relieved.”
Another knot curled itself into Imogene’s guts. Once again, the decaying chain of command offered that promise: “Someone will come for you.” How many more times would it hold true?
Gamma Squad turned out to be Jared Chey, plus an otter and a fox. Merging them in brought Lauren’s command back up to a full eight person squad.
As General Slate’s column crawled off into the east, Imogene and Jared deployed their jury-rigged antimatter bomb. A small hole and a thin layer of dust with the detonator’s antenna just clearing the surface took care of things. Another few minutes tromping around left enough tracks to disguise what they’d done, then they rejoined the others on the ridge.
“Everything set?” Lauren asked.
Imogene stepped into the shallow pit that had been dug behind a boulder on the ridgeline. “Yeah. It’s tied into this remote trigger.” She pulled the transmitter from her suit’s thigh pocket. “Wait till they’re centered over the bomb, then just flip off the safeties—”
“And blow those PAF fucks sky high,” Jared added with throaty chuckle. “This is gonna be good.”
Imogene’s lip curled. She could justify annihilating the PAF without warning like this since it would help keep her friends safe, but Jared’s twisted animosity sickened her. At least protocol kept the trigger in her control. Jared might be qualified too, but Lauren hated him even more than she did Imogene.
“Are we gonna be safe here?” Doubt filled Alexei’s voice. “Those antimatter missile carriers back at Santbech left awfully big craters.”
Imogene nodded. “We’re a good three klicks out, and the ridge here should stop debris and radiation. Plus, that’s only a single warhead. Gods only know how many were at Santbech. Keep your head down, and we should be good.”
Bruce lay in the shadow of another outcrop, and she settled in next to him.
“Is what you told him true?” Bruce’s soft voice came over a private channel. “That may only be one warhead, but we’re a hell of a lot closer than last time.”
“I don’t know.” She licked her lips and cast a long glance towards the canyon. “Radiation’s no problem; it goes straight. But debris is a crapshoot. When the time comes, make sure you’re behind something solid and cover your faceplate.”
He reached over and squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry. Wherever you are, I’ll be right beside you.”
A tingle of warmth flowed up from his hand, and she squeezed back. It was good to have someone to watch her back. And she knew she’d be watching his, whatever happened.
* * *
Below their position and several kilometres away, the canyon mouth gaped dark amid the pale gray stones and dust. Nothing moved save the slowly creeping shadows as the lunar day stretched on and on. Noon passed, and the sun slid lower as Imogene and the others took shifts watching and sleeping.
On what would have been the third Earth day, Imogene watched a small vehicle zip out of the canyon. After hours staring at the same unchanging landscape, the reality of what was happening didn’t quite register. Then it did, and she scrabbled in her pocket after the detonation trigger.
“Scout car,” Lauren said, tracking it with her rifle scope. “Let it go. We want his friends.”
With the trigger clenched in her left hand, Imogene raised her own scope to watch.
The PAF scout car slowed where the deep tracks of General Slate’s tanks turned east, but it didn’t stop. It fled south, passing a klick or so west of them without giving any sign they’d been spotted. Peripherally, Imogene noted her squadmates rousing and checking their equipment, but she kept her gaze fixed on the canyon.
Minutes limped by on broken hooves before another vehicle emerged. Dark and low-slung, a Komodo tank hunter rolled forward. A Fire Ant with missing skirts followed close behind.
Imogene watched, estimating the kill radius. If there were any survivors, she didn’t want them on her side of the resulting crater.
A mobile hospital crawler trailed the Fire Ant, then a supply truck, and another hospital crawler. And another... She scanned her scope back along the line of PAF vehicles. A dozen more medical and support units, with a lone, pockmarked tank bringing up the rear. About twenty vehicles, all told. The full force General Slate had been pursuing.
Traveling close together like that, the whole column fit easily inside the vaporization zone, never mind the full kilometre-wide kill radius. Probably best to detonate just before the first hospital crawler reached the bomb.
She licked her lips, eying the blood-red diamonds which marked the medical vehicles as noncombatants.
“There’s hardly any combat units,” she said.
Lauren shrugged one shoulder. “If they had troops, they wouldn’t have been using sneak attacks. Get ready, they’re coming up on where you buried it.”
Imogene looked back down at the hospital crawlers. Did this really need to happen? The question lay thick and oily at the back of her mouth. With only three armed vehicles, it’d be a waste of the bomb, wouldn’t it? Or of whatever supplies could be seized from those trucks? There were a thousand reasons she could give besides the real one eating away at her gut.
But she already knew the answer. Knew there wasn’t even a question. She had her orders, and so did Lauren, direct from the muzzle of a two-star general.
The crimson medic diamonds stared back at her, and for a moment the dark lines of her father’s bloodied face wavered below them. How many wounded soldiers lay in those crawlers, thinking they were done? How many frightened little girls were waiting for their father to return home?
If there was any home left.
Her eyes darted to the soot-black sky where Earth smoldered like a sullen coal. The world was dying. Was already dead. Now it was her turn to throw another log onto their collective pyre.
Her thumb trembled over the firing switch.
This was her duty. To make sure she and hers were the last to go down into that final darkness. Just a few more seconds...two, one—
Something in her chest crumpled. Her thumb snapped down, flipping the safety cover back into place.
She mashed down the trigger’s reset button. Ten seconds to erase the code.
“What?” Jared’s bellow overrode a shout from Lauren.
Lauren grabbed her arm, prying at the trigger. The safety cover flicked open again as Imogene shoved at Lauren’s helmet. She slapped it down, shifting her grip to keep both it and the reset depressed.
Jared was on his paws, barreling towards her.
She pulled back her arm and threw the trigger as far as she could.
“The fuck?” Jared yelled, staring at the puff of dust where the trigger landed. “You bitch! You fucking PAF loving slut!”
“Get the fuck down!” Lauren snarled at him. “They’re gonna see you. We’re putting up too much comm traffic already. Get the fuck down and give me another trigger. I might be able to hack the detonation code.”
Giddy and shaking from what she’d done, Imogene shook her head. “That’s a kilobit key. They’ll be gone before you try the first billion codes.”
Jared roared something unintelligible and vaulted over their boulder. He bounded after the trigger.
“I said stay down!” Lauren’s rifle tracked after him. Imogene shouldered the lynx aside, but hers wasn’t the only weapon zeroing in on the panda.
A blinding flash exploded fifty metres downslope, followed by a rain of shrapnel. The PAF tank adjusted its aim and fired again. Another flash and spray of dust erupted as the fragmentation round chewed into the hillside.
The hospital crawlers scattered, and the Fire Ant added a burst from its twin 50-mm gauss cannons to the mix.
A pair of strong hands grabbed Imogene’s ankles and yanked her back from the boulder. Bruce. He pulled her deep into their foxhole and flopped down beside her, one arm over her shoulders, holding her down.
The comm crackled static with each new explosion, and the ground tremored. Someone screamed, cut suddenly short.
“Stay down! Everybody stay down!” Lauren sounded frantic.
“You’ve got to surrender,” William yelped. “They don’t know we haven’t got anything that can hurt them. They’re gonna pound this whole ridge flat!” Another crack and a rain of gravel punctuated his words.
“No! We’ve got orders—Imogene, give me another trigger.”
Static cut in on her words and something metallic pinged off Imogene’s armor. She burrowed deeper, pressing her faceplate into the dust.
“I told you, it won’t work,” Imogene said. “You’re gonna get us all killed!”
Lauren pushed Bruce aside and clawed at Imogene’s demolitions pack. “Me? This is your fault. Now shut up and do as you’re told!”
William snarled. “Damn both of you.” A red icon lit on Imogene’s display as he opened an emergency channel. “Stop! We surrender! Stop shooting!”
One last shell exploded, followed by a deathly silence.
Lauren ripped Imogene’s pack free and began rifling it. “I didn’t authorize that,” she spat at William. “I’ll see you hang for this.” Her vizor snapped towards Imogene. “Both of you.”
“At least you’ll be alive to try.” Disgust dripped from the geologist’s tone. “Or maybe not. They haven’t answered yet.”
Imogene swallowed. What was taking so long? She pushed up just enough to glance over at Bruce. His faceplate turned to meet hers.
Some of the tension eased from her spine. She reached out to take his hand.
The red icon flashed again, and a crisp PAF voice spoke, “Come down off the hill. Leave your weapons.”
“Acknowledged.” William’s rifle already lay in dust, and he rose without giving it so much as a glance.
Imogene reclaimed her pack from where it lay beside Lauren and emptied it of explosives before snapping it back into place.
Alexei and Bruce stood too, along with Rocco, the fox from Jared’s squad. Alexei propped his rifle against a boulder while Rocco fished grenades out of his pack.
Lauren crouched in the foxhole, bent close over her datapad and a trigger from Imogene’s pack.
William nudged her shoulder. “You really want to stay up here alone? They’ll probably send someone to check our gear.”
The gray metal of her gauntlets clenched into fists, but she rose.
They could only find parts of Jared and his otter squadmate. Imogene wished she could remember the otter’s name other than “rudder-tail” as Jared had called him. Seeing him lying there and knowing the role she’d played in his death tore a hole in her heart and filled it with something more hollow than vacuum. He deserved to be remembered properly.
She couldn’t bring herself to feel the same about Jared. She wanted to, but all that came for the dead panda was contempt. If he hadn’t exposed their position, the PAF would have rolled on by, oblivious how close they’d come to annihilation.
No one had needed to get hurt here.
Looking up from his dead squadmates, Rocco growled. “Why in blazes did you sell us out?”
She wasn’t sure if he meant her or William, but Imogene answered. “It’s a medical unit. What good would it have done to blow them up?”
“What good?” the fox said. “How about keeping your squadmates alive? Y’think?”
Imogene’s eyes fell to where most of the otter’s upper body lay in the dust. Eugene. That had been his name. “Yeah. It was a bad call. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” Rocco mocked. “Fat lot of good that does any of us now.” He spun on his heel and started descending the ridge.
Imogene clenched her teeth and followed. This wasn’t what should have happened, but it was her fault.
The Fire Ant’s turret tracked their progress down from the ridge, while the tank and the Komodo repositioned to cover the canyon mouth. Imogene followed the line of their weapons towards the dark cleft. How close behind was General Slate? Not close enough if the PAF were willing to stop and take on prisoners.
A squad of armored infantry emerged from the Fire Ant, half of them heading for Imogene’s group while the rest bounded up the ridge. The PAF sergeant stepped forward when they met.
“You are in charge here, Lieutenant?” He looked at William.
“Not exactly.” The geologist rubbed a hand over his borrowed armor’s rank tabs. He half-turned to Lauren, but the lynx remained silent.
The sergeant shrugged. “We are to search your effects. Have your people cooperate.”
Imogene stood stiff as a PAF trooper pulled everything from her pack and pockets.
Useful things like rations and power packs went into his own pockets, while most of the rest were tossed aside. A few of the most benign items, he returned. The grimy set of fatigues she’d been wearing since Pons, a plastic hairbrush, her hoof shears—but not the matching pick—and a dust encrusted toothbrush.
Then they were herded into the back of a supply truck. Once all six of them were inside, the PAF sergeant’s voice crackled over the comm.
“Take off your armor and cycle it out through the airlock.”
Imogene grimaced. They wouldn’t even need to lock the door to turn the truck into a prison. The airless void outside offered perfect security.
She shucked out of the armor that had become a second skin. Without that hard shell, she felt exposed in a way her fatigues did nothing to remedy. As she pulled on her gray camo jacket, something fell and clattered to the compartment’s dull metal floor.
Her family photo.
Green toothpaste still covered the laminated rectangle. It was dry now, and she scratched away just enough to reveal her mother’s smiling face. That was all she could bear. Blinking away tears, she tucked the photo back into her pocket.
Gaze fixed on the floor, she avoided her companions’ eyes. She’d betrayed them all, sacrificing any small chance they had of seeing their loved ones again to indulge her moral delusions. She sank onto one of the metal crates lining the dim compartment.
Bruce sat beside her and wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. “This isn’t your fault. Jared shouldn’t have drawn their attention.”
Hearing her own thought echoed from his lips only made it sound even more unworthy. She wanted to tell him how wrong he was, but before she could do more than glance up, the airlock hissed open.
Four armored figures stepped out, including a tall woman with a colonel’s crescent moon and twin yellow stars on her shoulder. Her visor snapped open, revealing a tiger’s black stripes and icy blue eyes.
“I need information,” she said. “Give it to me, and I will not become annoyed.” Her gaze slid over the prisoners before settling on William. “You had no proper weapons. What was your plan? And why did your trooper break cover?”
“Don’t look at me,” William said, running a hand over his blue checkered jumpsuit. “I’m supposed to be a civilian.”
Her eyes narrowed and the long barbs of her whiskers twitched. She reached into her suit pocket, and what she withdrew made Imogene’s stomach lurch. The small remote detonation trigger fit easily in the tiger’s gauntlet.
“We found this below your position.” She held it out for all to see. “What is it linked to?”
Lauren snarled and sprang, claws grasping towards the trigger.
The colonel snatched it away, and the butt of a guard’s rifle slammed into Lauren’s side. She fell, hissing and spitting.
A grin split the tiger’s muzzle, the first real emotion she’d shown. “So, it is important. What does it do?” She toyed with the trigger, her eyes drifting over the prisoners.
Imogene shuddered as the cold blue gaze lingered on her. A cruel amusement sparked in those cyan pits. Amusement paired with something else—something not quite right that sent Imogene’s ears flat against her skull.
“Tell me, caribou. I see how you quiver. I am pressed for time, and you have little value to me beyond information. I will have your friends depressurized one by one.” She turned to her troopers. “Put the lynx in the airlock. She makes too much trouble.”
Lauren yowled and fought as two of the soldiers grabbed her, claws skidding useless over their metal armor.
Imogene wrenched her gaze back to the colonel. A smile lurked on her striped muzzle, growing wider as Lauren yowled again. Any thought the tiger might be bluffing drained from Imogene’s mind. She swallowed hard. Her inaction had already forced her squadmates into captivity. She couldn’t stand by and let that failure compound into their deaths. General Slate’s trap was miss-sprung and useless now anyway.
“Wait,” she said as they forced Lauren into the airlock. “There’s an annihilation bomb.”
The colonel’s eyes returned to Imogene, disappointment flashing through them before the cold blue erased all emotion. “What yield and where?”
“One gram. It’s a little left of the road. The Fire Ant is parked right on top of it.”
Lauren growled, but the colonel ignored her, speaking instead to one of her troops. “Find the bomb and relocate it deeper into the canyon. I will follow shortly with the Fire Ant and Komodo. The bastards chasing us will find their trap not quite where they expect it.”
Imogene clenched her fists, suddenly wishing she’d kept quiet.
The colonel’s icy gaze sliced into her, a row of fangs baring themselves in something far, far removed from a friendly smile. “Thank you, caribou, for your...cooperation.”
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-one, where worse turns to truly horribly awful.
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