MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
FRIENDS, RODENTS, COUNTRYMEN
Less than an hour after the colonel left them, the cargo compartment’s already dim lights went dark. They were too far away for the blinding white flash of the antimatter explosion to reach them, but a gentle tremor shuddered up through the floor.
“And that would be General Slate, fallen into his own trap.” William didn’t give the words any special inflection, but they cut into Imogene just the same.
A tiny whimper escaped her lips. How many people had been in the general’s column? Some of them might have survived the blast, but in her heart, she doubted it. They were all dead.
Because of her.
The lights recovered from the EM pulse, and in their murky yellow glow, Lauren curled her lip at Imogene. “I hope you’re happy.”
Rocco bared his teeth. “She won’t be happy till the tiger gives her a medal.”
For a brief moment Imogene met his gaze, then looked down at the deck plates. “What was I supposed to do? Let her kill you all? You know she’d have done it.”
The fox’s black ears folded in disgust. “So instead you help her torch a whole column? I had a girl in Beta Squad. We were gonna have kits.”
An eel of guilt twisted in her stomach. “I’m sorry.”
“Like hell you are.” Tail bristling, he lunged across the space between them, fist swinging for Imogene’s muzzle.
Reflexes from Basic made her raise an arm to block even as she shrank from the anger contorting his face.
Beside her, Bruce shoved the fox away before he could launch another blow. He rose, glowering at Rocco. “Leave her alone. We’re all on the same side here.”
“You sure of that?” Rocco recovered his balance, tail still twitching. He narrowed his eyes, shooting Imogene a scorn-filled look. “Jared was right: you’re nothing but a PAF loving piece of filth!”
Bruce tensed, but she laid a restraining hand on his arm. The last thing she wanted was for him to get hurt on her account. Besides, was Rocco really wrong? She felt like filth.
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
The fox twisted his muzzle into a sneer, but he turned away and resumed his seat between Lauren and William.
“I think Bruce is right,” Alexei said. “I mean, Imogene messed up bad, but fighting’s not gonna help. We gotta concentrate on how to escape.” He glanced at William. “You’re sure we can’t force the door to the crew compartment?”
William waved to the metal mesh door. “Be my guest. But even if we get it open, there’s the question of getting away from the convoy.”
“Right.” Alexei twitched his whiskers and frowned down at the floor. “Still, the door’s the first step.” He shuffled over and started prodding, then pounding at the door.
Imogene wished he’d give up. It was obviously solid, and if the truck’s driver came back while he was attacking it, there could only be trouble.
Finally he did sit down, and perhaps a quarter hour of turgid silence passed before the crew compartment’s airlock clanked open. Boots rasped on the deck, but Imogene kept her gaze locked on her hooves. None of William or Alexei’s efforts had even wiggled the mesh door, so until it or the cargo airlock opened, nothing outside mattered.
Her jaw clenched hard enough to break rocks. She knew that high, clear voice. Knew it, and had hoped never to hear it again.
“Yes, Ming-Xue. It’s us.” She looked up at the white furred rodent staring back through the mesh.
“And Bruce. Good.” Ming-Xue’s pink nose twitched. “I am pleased you survived. Although, I might have wished you a better fate than this.”
“You and me both.” Imogene snorted, then frowned. “I don’t suppose you know what’s going on?”
The rat shook her head. “Little. And less I should tell you.”
Rocco’s eyes darted from Ming-Xue to Imogene and back. “That blast just now, where there any survivors? Infantry?” Desperation bled through his voice, and the eel in Imogene’s gut twisted a little tighter.
“Maybe a few,” Ming-Xue said. “But Colonel Bychkov made sure of the vehicles. No one will follow.”
“And you’re just gonna leave them out here to die?” Rocco snarled.
Ming-Xue looked away. “It is not my decision.” She turned and settled into the driver’s seat. “Quiet now; we are moving out.”
Imogene tried to sleep as the truck rolled over the dead lunar plains. Her head rested gently on Bruce’s shoulder, and his warm, comforting musk washed out the acrid scent of anxious feline and canine sweat.
She tried to sleep, but it was no good. Images poured through her mind. Ryan’s shattered helmet leered at her, gray dust swirling around him and changing into thick black smoke. Stars burst amid the darkness, and Jack’s voice filled the void: “And they just keep on shining. It’s comforting. Comforting...” The frosted globe of his helmet rose amid the dark mist, and deep red blood dripped against the glass. Throbbing, burning blood that belched smoke across the sphere as a once blue world burned itself to ash in the choking velvet night.
She whimpered, nuzzling deeper into the warmth of Bruce’s chest. She hadn’t wanted any of this to happen. She’d done her best to quench the flames. She told herself that, but deep down something wondered if she’d only made things worse.
“Hey,” Bruce murmured. “You doin’ okay?”
“No,” she said into the fur of his chest. “I’m tired and hungry and locked in the back of a truck going gods know where, and whenever I close my eyes I see Jack, and Jared, and that poor guy’s girl in Beta Squad.”
“I didn’t know you’d met her.”
Imogene shook her head. “I didn’t, but that doesn’t matter. I killed her. And the others. And probably us, too.”
Bruce pushed her away far enough to lock his deep brown eyes on her own. “This isn’t your fault.”
She broke his gaze, staring instead at the grimy gray material of his jacket. “You know that isn’t true. If I’d just followed orders we’d be back safe with General Slate now. Every time I try to do something good, it turns out for the worse.”
“You did what you thought was right.”
“No.” She nodded to Rocco. “He’s right. I’m a traitor. All I do is keep killing my friends. If that’s what’s right, then I want nothing more to do with it. A soldier’s supposed to kill the enemy, not help them.”
Bruce pulled her tighter, murmuring some reassurance she didn’t want to hear. If she heard his words, she’d know they were more gentle lies. She squeezed her eyes shut, closing off the world outside and building a dam against her tears. His soft words flowed over her, and she let them, trying to forget where they sat and what exactly he was saying.
* * *
The truck came to a stop, but unlike the last three times this occurred, no one brought food for Imogene and the others. Ming-Xue exchanged a hushed conversation with someone over the comm. They spoke too quietly for Imogene to overhear, but the furtive glance Ming-Xue cast back at them when the conversation ended set her fur prickling.
A few minutes later the front airlock opened and admitted a mass of gray-suited soldiers. Colonel Bychkov, and this time a half-dozen armored infantry. The colonel snapped open her visor and grinned at the prisoners while one of her troops unlocked the mesh door.
Lauren sneered back. “So, Colonel Bitch, wasn’t it?”
The tiger’s whiskers slicked back against her cheek ruffs. “Indeed. I have more questions.”
“We’re not telling you anything,” Lauren spat.
Colonel Bychkov turned a cold blue gaze on Imogene.
Imogene set her jaw and levelly met the colonel’s eyes. She was done pandering to the PAF tiger.
“No?” The colonel’s lips twitched. “Perhaps I can persuade you.” She pulled out a side arm and shot Rocco right between the eyes.
The crack of the chemical propellant pistol was impossibly loud. Imogene’s ears flattened. The fox toppled slowly sideways, a stunned expression frozen on his blood-specked face. Her stomach twisted and she ripped her gaze away.
Colonel Bychkov holstered the weapon and let her gaze slide over her captives. “That was to show you I am serious. I will not kill the next one, but you will wish I had.”
Her slow survey of the compartment ended on Imogene.
She shuddered, shrinking back from the murderous tiger.
“Given what I have learned from our mutual friend”—the colonel flicked her eyes at where Ming-Xue huddled in the driver’s seat—“you must have returned to the Borda fuel depot. Perhaps the fool commanding your unit even used it as a staging area before pursuing us? In what condition did you leave the base?”
Imogene clamped down on her tongue. She’d already helped this vile creature more than she could stomach.
The colonel reached into a thigh pocket and produced a pair of needle-nose pliers. She rolled them back and forth between her hands for a moment, then glanced up at Imogene. “I would rather not get blood on my suit. Tell me, how many troops were left to defend the fuel depot?”
She couldn’t have answered if she wanted to. Fear clogged her throat like a lump of rancid field rations. She swallowed, but found her mouth drier than the dust outside.
“As you wish.” The colonel turned to her troops. “The stag, I think. Take him to the back. Keep the others seated.”
“No!” Imogene clutched Bruce’s arm as two of the armored infantry dragged him upright. A third prodded her with his rifle, but she ignored the threat.
“Don’t.” Bruce shook her off. “It’s okay.”
The fear in his eyes gave lie to that. She grabbed him again, but they yanked him away. The third guard’s jabs found the bruise over her left ribs and she crumpled. Tears of pain and anger burned the corners of her eyes.
The two guards slammed Bruce into the wall, pinning his back against the dark gray metal. Colonel Bychkov strode slowly up to him, stopping with less than a hand’s breadth between their muzzles.
“Now, Bruce was it? I think both you and I know this is for your caribou’s benefit, but if you value your hide more than she seems to, feel free to answer for yourself. I need cooperation. How or whose does not matter.”
She stepped back and gave the pliers a sharp click. “One last time: what defense was left at Borda?”
Bruce tightened his lips, but gave no other reply.
“Hold his head,” she said to one of the guards. “I do not want him putting out an eye. Not yet.”
The trooper moved up beside the colonel, blocking Imogene’s view of what came next. Her view, but not the sound. A horrid wet ripping turned her insides to jelly. Bruce bellowed, something between a curse and a strangled roar. He struggled, and Imogene half-rose, but another jab from a guard’s rifle pushed her back down.
Alexei put a hand on her shoulder, but she hardly noticed.
She listened, ears pinned back against her skull as Bruce’s cries grew louder. Each new scream seemed to claw at the cabin walls, just as the pain behind them ripped into her chest. And into each panting quiet, the colonel would repeat her question.
Colonel Bychkov and the guard shifted, giving Imogene an unimpeded glimpse. Centimetre deep notches serrated Bruce’s ear. Blood oozed from the wounds, matting his fur and dripping from his muzzle.
The tiger took a new grip on his ear, raising the pliers.
“Stop,” the word slipped from Imogene’s lips before she could restrain it. “Stop, I, I’ll...”
Colonel Bychkov turned. A speck of blood marred her white-furred muzzle, and her pale blue eyes gleamed like frozen marbles. “Yes? You have already helped me once. It is too late for honor, but not to spare your friend.”
The low growl rumbling in Lauren’s throat rose to a yowl. “Don’t tell her anything! You help her, it’s fucking treason!”
Imogene’s jaw worked, but nothing came out. It didn’t matter any more, did it? General Slate was dead. And even if she managed to lead their captors into the trap at Borda, she and Bruce would die too. She had to warn Bychkov. It all made sense. But then that’s what she’d thought when she threw the detonation trigger.
If she trusted her heart over her duty again, it could only end in more pain and shame and death.
Her eyes darted back to Bruce. His chest and shoulders heaved, jaw locked tight. He was watching her. Everyone was watching her, waiting for her to break. And if she didn’t...
Another drop of blood made a low-gravity fall to the floor. She couldn’t hear the *plick *as it hit, but her heart still quavered under the impact. She couldn’t do this. Not to him.
Her muzzle opened, and Colonel Bychkov leaned forward.
“Bombs,” Bruce gasped out. “There’s bombs, and a couple wounded guys left to trigger them.”
Imogene’s mouth snapped shut. Her eyes locked with the stag’s, and he managed what might have been a broken smile before the colonel stepped between them.
“What sort of bombs? How many and where?”
Bruce shook his head, sending more crimson droplets off in a slow-moving arc. “I don’t know. Just that General Slate couldn’t spare the troops to guard the fuel, so he set this up to keep you from getting it.”
“And that is the extent of the defenses?” She addressed the question to Bruce, but her ice blue eyes flicked between him and Lauren. Bruce nodded, while the rage seething in Lauren’s slitted eyes gave all the confirmation anyone could want.
“So, bombs.” The tiger turned to Imogene. “And I suspect you had something to do with them. I saw what they took from your pack.”
Imogene gave a slow, reluctant nod.
“Hmm.” Colonel Bychkov slapped the still bloody pliers into the palm of her other glove. “I think a lone survivor escaped your general’s folly. Escaped, and now returns to her base. Someone who knows enough about the explosives to quickly disarm them once she is inside.”
A bitter taste rose up in the back of Imogene’s mouth. “And what makes you think I’ll help you?”
“I like teeth.” The tiger curled her black lips and tapped the pliers against one long, pointed fang. “So useful. So strong, and deeply rooted. Your stag has nice teeth. If you want him to keep them, you will do what I say.”
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-two, something to chew on.
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